CHAPTER FIVE

EARLY WAR YEARS

1939 - 1940

I was woken by the high-pitched voice of Grandma shouting, “Wakey Wakey, can’t have the bridegroom late for the bride, can we?” Grandma was well known for being an early riser, and thankfully this morning was no exception. I replied; “What about my best man, he is notorious for arriving at the station after the train has left - have you woken Sam?”
“Yes Alan, he should be down any time now.” I had been given the sofa in the front room as my bed, which I found very comfortable. Mr Hitler had no desire to spoil our wedding, for no sirens sounded during the night. It was always feared by the public that at the start of war with Germany, we would be subject to mass air raids from the first day of war.
Grandma had prepared a light breakfast of cereals and toast, which I hurriedly devoured, after I had a cat-lick in the kitchen sink, my toilet gear was at home. Sam gradually came alive and asked, “Alan, hope you have not forgotten the wedding ring, if you have we would have to stop the war until we get one.” I made doubly certain that this gold ring which Gladys had fitted on last Saturday, 2nd September, was secure in my top tunic pocket. I looked at the clock in the kitchen, which gave the time of 8.10 am, leaving me less than two hours before the wedding ceremony to get home, change and return by taxi.
I had also arranged to pick Grandma and Sam on the way to the registrar at the Wolverhampton Civic Centre. Again, Sam had to be pushed, to get his motorbike started to take me to Old Fallings Lane, and for him to pick up the buttonhole carnations from the bride at Leason Lane. When Sam came to start his motorbike there was no response, further attempts were of no avail! “Sam, look, I cannot wait any longer, I shall have to walk home.” I said to him. He replied, “You have no need to walk, you can borrow my newly-acquired cycle.” Without further delay, I left, thanking Grandma for her hospitality, reminding her that I shall be picking them up by taxi at 9.15 am to take them to the registrar, and “See that you are wearing your ostrich-feathered broad brimmed hat.”
I had just reached home as my father was leaving by car to his business. He waved and wished me good luck. Now I had to shave and sort out my best clothes, consisting of a dark blue suit, shiny black shoes, white shirt and cuff links and my white striped blue tie. I had a job in locating my cream gloves. Time was moving fast, only 15 minutes before the taxi will arrive at 9.15 am. Every now and then I gave a thought to Gladys and her family - did they arrive back from Wallasey? Would she remember to bring the buttonhole carnations for me, Sam and Grandma? We would soon know!
It was a relief to see the taxi arrive on time and before departing, I made my last check that the wedding ring was in my jacket pocket. Grandma, complete with her wide brimmed feather hat and shoulder fur with Sam in his light grey suit, greeted the taxi with a buttonhole carnation for me. I noticed they were both wearing carnations, so Sam had made it to Gladys’ after all.
We finally arrived at the Civic Office, in St Peter’s Square, Wolverhampton, where we made our way to the registar’s room. When entering, around 9.40 am, only the registrar was present, sitting at his desk. I began to have some horrible thoughts that Gladys and party would not make it. Just then, there were giggling noises outside the door, then I knew all was well.
There was an age difference between Gladys and her youngest sister, Brenda, of 20 years, Gladys being of the same age as myself, 23 years old. Edna, the next eldest sister, was having difficulty wearing a pancake hat with a bunch of flowers on top. The other sister, Joan and Gladys’ Mum and Dad with Brenda, all had their carnations displayed.
The registrar then explained the format of the wedding after he had finalised the register details. It was noticeable that the children sitting on the first row of chairs were quiet and would appear to be curious as to what was to take place.
The wedding was short and after the kissing of the bride, to seal the marriage, we were asked to complete the register with witnesses from those present. Hardly before I could say thank you to all the guests taking part in this important event, I was whisked away to keep a wedding portrait appointment. The time had passed 10.40 am and I was due back in the drill hall by noon.
We must have looked like a couple of shop thieves as we ran through the centre of Wolverhampton, past Manders, the paint firm and down Worcester Street to reach the photographers.
The taxi we ordered at 11 am arrived promptly and took us back to my address at Old Fallings Lane. The taxi was asked to take me back to the drill hall after I had completed my assignment. This was, of course, to put on my army uniform after I had done what a man has to do to consummate a marriage. We kissed goodbye, not knowing what the morrow had in store for us. As I was leaving I felt proud to have Gladys as my wife and to know she would be waiting for my return.
On returning to the drill hall just before noon, I was greeted by Sergeant Mills and a small group. As I alighted from the taxi, Sergeant Mills called for three cheers. He shouted, “Did you make it?”
“Yes.” I replied, “I made it and confirmed it.”
We knew on Sunday 3rd September, when war had been declared, that our departure was set for midday Monday 4th September. The location was not declared. I was to learn that the final departure time was now planned for 1 pm and that we were to return to our former gun site at Coventry, when called up during the Munich crisis. On arrival, we were held up for some time in Coventry High Street, While waiting in the army vehicle we saw coffins being carried into the public baths. My thoughts were that there were some pessimistic people about, in turning the civic baths into a mortuary. Later, unfortunately, on the 14th November 1940, a massive German air raid was launched against this city, dropping 400 tons of bombs, causing 1419 casualties and thousands to be homeless.
The bombers were guided to Coventry on radar beams from strategically positioned radar stations on the continent. All this was in contrast to our inactive ‘ack ack’ duties, apart from practice drills, during the whole of our tour of duty here. There were no sirens or alarms during this period of this so called ‘phoney war’.
By mid-October the 209HAA battery was notified that it was being posted overseas and that all personnel would be given 48 hours embarkation leave. At the end of this leave, all personnel would be required to report to the barracks at Newport by midday. While at Newport, each gunner would be fully fitted out with new clothing, including the new battle dress uniform.
These embarkation leaves are not occasions to go wild about. There is sadness at the parting and no-one knows when the next meeting will be. C’est la guerre.
There were very mixed scenes at Newport Barracks as members reported to the duty sergeant on arrival. It was a major surprise that out TA unit would be required so early in the war to join the BEF in France. Most of us were squatting around the barracks’ court yard, awaiting our turn to be kitted out. When I completed this exercise, I was aware that I had retained my original boots, which I put in my haversack. I was to pay dearly for this pilfering later that day.
Now, to the surprise of the 209HAA men, a squad of young conscripts marched into the main court centre. They were highly drilled and very smartly turned out with boots boned to guards’ standard. They were addressed by their officer and told they were to reinforce the 209 TA unit.
On standing down, these young soldiers were keen to tell us they were from Lancashire and felt proud to have been chosen to join us. They seemed to have brought fresh air and colour to our battery, whose ages ranged between teenaged and 30 plus.
One of the militia men became well known for singing Gracie Fields’ songs, such as “Sally, Sally, Pride of Our Alley” etc, he was know as Greg. Later that day, we were addressed by General Sir Fred Pile, C of C of ack ack defences. He wished all a safe and successful mission and we were to guard against putting all our eggs in one basket.
That night, we marched from the barracks to the Newport Harbour. It was the most painful march of the whole war, I had this extra weight of the spare boots in the pack, which caused the shoulder strap to cut off the blood supply to my arms, making them quite numb. It was dark when we embarked on the Benmy McCree, 2,600 tons, an Isle of Man passenger ferry steamer with a speed of 22 knots, assigned to take us across the English Channel.
Darkness did not prevent the commanding officer from holding gas drill on board open deck, where we were issued with gas capes. The moon came out and while our ship was moored, the moon’s reflection on the water gave a romantic setting. This false illusion was soon to be put right when we were shepherded down into the passengers’ saloon and told to kip down for the night. I seized an unoccupied bench as my bed for the night. It reminded me of the homeless finding a pitch to doss. I was feeling the effects of the overweight haversack and was anxious to get some sleep. I remember, as I felt the ship’s throb from the engine, that whilst on open deck, I did not seen any escort naval vessels; someone said that the captain relied on the ship’s fast speed to keep out of trouble. I prayed that this would be so.
We were awakened by a duty sergeant bellowing forth, “Come and get it, come and get it. Breakfast is now being served - take your mug and billy can.” At the ship’s restaurant serving hatch, where our breakfast was being served, the duty officer was asking individuals if they had any complaints. From time to time, remarks were made like, “My egg’s too hard”. He then announced that there would be an inspection parade on top deck at 9.30 am. On this parade we were addressed by Colonel Wood on a very draughty deck.
His main point was that we were to join the RAF Advanced Air Strike Force (AASF) to defend their airfields. Our base in France would be St Nazaire, the port we were now sailing to. My predictor partner, Laurie Green, who was always practising his French said, “My wife and I go regularly to Bordeaux. I know this part of France well. I could be a tourist guide for the troops.” I reminded him, “We are not on a holiday jaunt.”
Looking out to sea, I felt we were very exposed to enemy action, for there were not naval escort ships and no light bofor guns on board deck. The ship’s captain announced that we were entering the Bay of Biscay and the coast outline we could see was that of Brittany. Now all the troops were standing on deck eagerly awaiting the sight of St. Nazaire. As we approached our destination, the green coast line gave no clue to the havoc to come. We at last arrived at this impressive port with its large berthing facilities. The first French person that I saw was a Madame, wearing a dark dress, white apron and a white lace headdress, draping a high comb, a sort of mantilla.
Soon after the Ben McCree docked, the troops disembarked along the quayside. The weather was warmer than when we left Newport. Now, Colonel Wood gave us another address. This time he stressed the need to keep the vehicles in top condition, we were a mobile battery. To this end, he would introduce weekly MT inspections, he then added, these vehicles could be the saving of your lives. Our final destination was Epernay, in the Champagne Country and we were to travel from Nantes by train to Chalon on the Marne.
We arrived at Nantes. At the railway goods yard, our vehicles and guns were loaded onto low wagons labelled in large letters, 20 CHEVAUX (horses) 40 LES HOMMES (men). That night, the men were let loose to sample Nantes.
A small group of us found our way to the Garden of Eden establishments. There was much joking and daring about who would be first to enter one of the brothels. Being newly married, I must confess that I was the last to enter. There was talk that women sat at a desk, collected the money and paired you off. I am not ashamed to state that I was not impressed when I saw what was on offer and turned tail.
Outside this ‘den of pleasure’, the stench from the drains turned my stomach upside down. Our night’s abode was in a large warehouse, having a concrete floor to sleep on. Apart from a ground sheet, we had no palliases or other medium to soften the floor surface.
Later, one of our group, who had sampled the delights of Nantes, developed VD. He was of a religious nature and felt guilty, particularly as he was on the sick parade for several months.
On the second day, following our arrival in France at St Nazaire, we boarded the goods train containing our unit’s weapons and control equipment, which were loaded on the wagons the previous day. Most travelled in the covered wagons, apart from those who travelled with the equipment, for which they had a responsibility.
I travelled in the passenger seat of the lorry loaded with control equipment, including the predictor. The driver of this vehicle I knew as ‘Rusty’, a nickname he had acquired because of his copper coloured hair. There was no ceremony at our departure from Nantes, no ticket collector to check our tickets.
Again, the weather was fine and mild and, as this special goods train slowly moved forward, we had a sense that we were leaving a part of France untouched by this phoney war. I said to Rusty, “This train is moving so slowly that one of us could jump off up forward by the engine and help ourselves to any fruit not yet picked in the fruit fields, for which the Loire country is famous and re-join the tail end of the train.”
There was no response from Rusty, he was nodding off to sleep - effects of the night out in Nantes, no doubt. The train could very well have been called ‘the slow train to China’. It was certainly the best way of seeing the beauty of the Loire Valley with its many castles and vineyards.
We had been issued with hard rations - bully beef and dog biscuits - so that we could not complain about not stopping for meals. By the time we had our first stop, it was nightfall on the outskirts of Paris. There was much ‘toing and froing’ by the railway staff, who were working in the full glare of the goods yards over head lights. It seemed our steam engine was being changed, more important, we were able to make ourselves comfortable and that a cup of coffee had been organised for our arrival.
We were reminded by our troop officer that our final rail destination was Chalon on the Marne, capital of the Marne district. It is here we would detrain to complete our journey by road to Plivot, an outer district of Epernay. Once again, we took up our former stations, be it a wagon, gun or lorry, hopefully to sleep off the rest of the journey. I could not come to terms with the highly lit goods yard we were about to leave. What about the air raids. Did the French not believe in them? There was a belief at the highest level of army command in France that provided we did not bomb their cities, they would not bomb ours. Our RAF in France was strictly controlled by the French as to what targets in Germany they were allowed to bomb, to avoid retaliatory action by the Germans.
Hard rations were again issued to sustain us on our way to Chalon, which was reached mid-afternoon. We were shunted into the goods yard to enable our weapons to be unloaded by overhead lifting gear. During this process, an RAF officer arrived and contacted the commanding officer. Troops were instructed to get their weapons ready for the road journey. The RAF officer had arrived to act as our escort for our convoy to lead us to the future gunsite at Plivot. Our three-inch guns required the most attention, since the gun platforms had to be raised to allow the gun wheels to be attached.
Again, travelling in the lorry with the driver, Rusty, we also had Laurie Green squeezed in the driver’s cabin. All the control equipment was stacked in this lorry. The troops had been instructed to travel with the equipment they were responsible for manning.
Once the convoy was on the move, I said to Laurie, “Keep your eyes open for any road signs, you never know, we may have to make our own getaway at some future date!”
“True”, replied Laurie, “Did you just notice that one we have just passed, it had Epernay on it.”
“Sounds to me we are going in the same direction”, I retorted.
This was the first time that I had travelled on French roads, which I had understood were straight and tree-lined. This was one such road, the trees were very upright, similar to our poplar tree. The road ran parallel to the river Marne, and as we approached a large town, I assumed it to be Epernay, the convoy took a sharp turning left along a narrow country road.
Laurie spotted the road sign and shouted, “This is it, the signpost read ‘Plivot’, ‘Athis’ and ‘Avis’.” So, travelling along this very narrow road through undulating plains, where women could be seen working in the fields, we sensed our destination was at hand.
Very soon, we spotted planes parked in the distance, giving the clue as to why we had come this distance. On arriving at the allocated gunsite position, we were instructed to site the guns parallel to the road and position the command post and control equipment in the centre of the gunsite.
This was followed by carrying out check procedure ready for action. Those lucky enough not to be detailed for gunsite duty for the night were paraded on the road and marched off to Paul Roger’s Chateau, about a mile further down this country road. We were told that this would be our future billets until such time as Nissen huts were erected on site. When we arrived at Roger’s shooting lodge, all were very tired and in my case, very weak for we had not had a substantial meal since we left the ship.
We were detailed to get bedded down in any of the ground floor rooms, apart from those who were ordered for the dreaded night guard patrol. In doing night guard, no allowance was made the following day for loss of sleep. I personally, could only just keep awake when I unfortunately had to do this stint. It was again, “find your place to doss for the night”, on the floor, using the issued ground sheet between you and the wooden planks.
Next morning, the cooks had set up a field kitchen and served tea and porridge. We were promised French sticks and stew for dinner. On returning to the gunsite, there was major physical work ahead. Slit trenches had to be dug alongside each equipment to cater for the manning team. The next task to be carried out was the digging of gunpits to a depth which would allow gun barrels to be visible above ground.
This was to give maximum protection to the gun crew and still allow the battery to defend itself against tank attacks. Likewise the command post team were required to dig the depth of the command post, which would allow control equipment team and gunsite officer to see above ground.
These tasks took several weeks to complete and I know there were many who felt weak through the lack of wholesome food. Our troop officer, Colin Elwell called for volunteers to form a Christmas tree raiding party. His aim was to camouflage the gunsite into what might look from the air a pine tree plantation. I was an army volunteer, “You! You!”, to join his raiding party. Our mission was carried out several times finding different plantations on each trip until we had covered the whole site with Christmas trees. I think Colin Elwell was quite proud of his gunsite conversion into a plantation, for all to see, be it in the air, on the road, or just on the gunsite.
On the day after the completion of this project, a couple of gendarmes arrived by car and stood by the gunsite, pointing in all directions across the site. They then asked to see the site officer. They were directed into the command post. We were now approaching December, when Christmas trees were becoming a much sought after commodity. Raised voices could be heard coming from the command post. As the gendarmes were leaving the command post, they were waving their arms and it looked like severe warnings were being given out. After their departure I asked if Colin Elwell would be issuing medals to those taking part in his raiding party. Sadly, there was no response to this request. I think he had just avoided an international incident.
Plivot airport was destined to be the forward base for strategic reconnaissance for planes of the Advanced Air Strike Force, AASF. Planes on this type of mission landed on the nearby airfield, refuelled and camera equipment was fitted. Most planes were of the Fairey Battle type, which had a high casualty rate. Of five battles of 150 Squadron AASF, when on reconnaissance on the 30th November, four were shot down in five minutes and the fifth was damaged and caught fire on landing. We were always conscious when planes failed to return, but could not be sure whether this was because they had returned to another base.
There was no direct communication between Plivot airfield command and ourselves, at least there did not appear to be any to those on the gunsite.
The meat for the stew promised us was - guess what! - bully beef!
A liberty outing, once a week, was organised for the troops to visit the baths at Epernay. This half day visit provided an opportunity to have a change of food and to buy personal needs. I found on these visits, that the ‘froggies’ kept themselves aloof. I hardly remember receiving a smile other than from a shop assistant in a Bon Marche type of shop. There were a few young people about; certainly there was no evidence of fraternising between the local girls and the troops. I was told that the French government had issued warnings to their young girls to avoid mixing with Allied troops. I think they did not want a repeat of unwanted babies, as happened after the First World War.
I think most of the older men, who in the main wore black berets and stood at street corners or sat at tables outside estanets, had no interest in the war. This impression I also gained at Nantes. On the 7th December, we were honoured to have King George VI and Air Vice-Marshall Playfair, Commander of the AASF to inspect our gunsite. They were accompanied by Colonel Wood, Major Slater, both of the 73rd Reg., 209HAA Battery. When they arrived at the predictor instrument, the King said to Major Slater, “I suppose you know all about this piece of equipment?” The Major hesitated when replying, “Well, not exactly.” With this answer, the King remonstrated the Major, “You should know.” I did not give the Major many marks if he was seeking early promotion. Later, on the 18th December, we had the Australian Air Minister, Fairfax, with a French Staff Officer visit us - perhaps they were impressed with the Christmas Tree plantation. Because I had caught a chill on Christmas eve guard duty, I was left alone at the Chateau, while the lads enjoyed the Red Cross Christmas parcels on the gunsite.
Laurie brought back a cracker and balloon to cheer me up. We had several opportunities to visit Entertainment National Service Association, ENSA, concerts in Epernay, where many famous artistes in the entertainment world could be seen entertaining the local troops. On the 27th December at such a concert, Gracie Fields, Jack Payne and Peggy Cochrane took part. I felt a little homesick.
This was one of the coldest winters on record in this part of France. Some of the regions had 50 degrees of frost. The MT drivers had a hard job starting their engines and were lighting fires to defreeze the engine oil and preheating firing plugs to get their engines started. Plane crews were also having difficulty in starting their aircraft engines. Everyone was required to take a turn to hand start the engines.
Our daily routine comprised marching to the gunsite to arrive half an hour before sunrise and depart half an hour after sunset. Our blankets and personal gear, left in the Chateau, were always in a haphazard state, causing a lot of time in sorting out one’s own gear when returning from the gunsite. Our sanitation had become lax; soldiers could not be bothered to go to the latrines if it was more convenient to use the woods close by.
Sergeant Major Smith had us on parade half an hour earlier than normal for the time to be marching to the gunsite. He bellowed forth, “You are playing at being soldiers; from now on you are going to be soldiers. The day will start with a kit inspection, anyone not using the latrines will receive a week’s latrine orderly duty. It seems you have been allowed too much rope and now you have to be brought back to your military training standards. Any questions?” There was not a murmur from the troops. All were guilty of the disarray in the rooms. This dressing down transformed our domestic routine, making it straight to bed down for the night on our return from the gunsite.
An advantage of being billeted at the Chateau was that when off-duty, one could go walks through the woods in the shooting lodge estate. There were many wild flowers, such as primroses, out. The gamekeeper’s son, Paul, in his early teens, was keen on body building and every now and then would try to impress us with his arm muscles. He was hoping to join the French army as soon as age would allow. They lived in a cottage close to the Chateau. Early Spring, 1940, Nissen huts were erected on the gunsite. We then said our goodbyes to the shooting lodge. Greg, from the militia had been put in charge of the hot water solid fuel boilers and each morning he would give us a rendering of a Gracie Fields song, to the accompaniment of drum noises made by banging on the metal lids of hot water boilers. I believe this to be true, that we always had hot water to shave and this applied after we made our hurried retreat in May.
All our mail was vetted, both in and out. In one letter, I received from Gladys, was a photo of herself taken in her bathing costume. Colin Elwell, who was vetting our letters, sent for me and said that I was lucky to have married such a beauty. “Nice of you to say so, and nice of you to have given me permission to wed her.” I smiled.
We had the opportunity to visit Paul Roger’s champagne factory, where we were shown round the cellars by a guide. Hundreds and hundreds of champagne bottles were stacked on racks sloping with the corks at the lowest point. Each day a person rotated the bottles in a new position. After the final rotational position had been completed, the cork was replaced, having extracted from the bottle all the impurities on the cork which had been replaced. This was visible to the eye for those impurities formed a cone shaped lump under the cork.
In the cellar, Paul Rogers was alleged to have the largest barrel in the world. This, it was claimed, could be read in many encyclopaedias. I wrote a letter home, stating that we were near where the largest barrel in the world was kept. It got past the censor, for I was to learn later that they had discovered I was near Epernay.
Many troops, like ourselves, were getting blasť to the danger from air strikes. Army command issued a circular to all troops in the BEF calling for volunteers to go the aid of Norway. Germany had captured Oslo on the 9th April and was pressing on to control the whole of the country, with its vital Atlantic harbours. This was a reminder that, although it was a phoney war here, at the moment Germany could strike out in any direction whenever it suited her.
One of our pastimes was playing football against a French 155MM artillery battery billeted close by. I became friendly with one of their officers who spoke good English. He told me that the majority of their troops came from Alsace Lorraine, which was formerly part of Germany before the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.
He doubted whether they would ever fire against Germany because of their background. When they passed our gunsite on the way to the front, they looked a bedraggled mob. Apart from guns being towed by lorries, the rest used hand carts to transport their equipment.
The troops just ambled along, no marching with the column stretching over a great distance. The officers were best equipped, they rode on horseback rounding up stragglers.
On the 10th May, I was one of the first to be on the gunsite just before sunrise. In the distance, on the horizon, as day broke, there appeared hordes of planes flying parallel to our site. It could have been a huge cloud of locusts filling the skyline. Unfortunately, this was war for real, these planes were part of 1,500 assigned by the Germans, including many Junkers 87 dive bombers, to blast away any obstacles in the way of the Panzer armour divisions. This morning, they were engaged in breaking through at Sedan, in the Ardennes mountain region.
While maintaining their weapons, the soldiers were anxiously awaiting news from the front. By mid-morning, a signal was received from the AASF that all advanced airfields, including Plivot, were to be immediately evacuated. Squadrons of the AASF were to occupy pre-prepared airfields behind the Marne around Troyes, approximately 60 miles further back.
Orders were given for our instant evacuation. We assembled on the road, there was insufficient transport to ferry us with the control equipment and guns breach blocks. There was no time to dig the guns out of their pits. Those without transport started marching towards Troyes. When the transport reached our new gunsite, it returned to collect the rest of the unit. Later in the day, it was learned that the German thrust at the Sedan was directed towards the Channel Ports and not Paris.
A decision was made to retrieve our guns and volunteers were called for to return with lorries to tow back these weapons. I do not remember answering the call, nevertheless, I found myself returning with those whom, I presume, did answer the call.
Personally, I had not forgotten when I last said I could ride a bike and got landed on fatigues in the cook house. Never volunteer was the message after this and yet, here I was going back to recover these guns. We achieved our object without interference from the enemy and towed the guns to the gunsite at Troyes. When we arrived alongside the field near an airfield where several RAF Blenheims were parked, we were required immediately to get out the guns and control equipment ready for action.
Control had been made with the local squadrons of the AASF 114 and 139. for us, it became a routine, site the guns and control equipment, dig slit trenches, construct bivouacs using tarpaulin sheets off the ammunition lorries and chop sticks off trees to raise the tarpaulin sheets to resemble tents.
The cooks were required to prepare field kitchens, and Greg was to ensure his solid fuel boilers had hot water always on tap, which he did. I still claim we never had to shave in cold water. The food used by the cooks had generally been scrounged locally. From now on, until our departure from France, we were a nomad tribe.
Before leaving Plivot on the 17th April, I had been promoted to Lance Bombardier. I had always queried Sergeant Mills’ orders suggesting another way of doing the task, I was trying to be a smart Alec. I came to realise I was getting all the rotten jobs, a change of attitude was needed. It was now to be, “Yes sergeant, certainly sergeant” in future. I was soon rewarded with this promotion in the field.
Now it was my turn to give orders. I was to find there were other smart Alecs around and I was also to learn that being a lance bombardier was the hardest rank in the artillery to command respect. Unlike the sergeant, who after giving the men a roasting, could disappear into the sergeant’s mess, the bombardier grade had to eat, sleep and use the same quarters as the men. It is a case of familiarity breeds contempt. Apart from taking charge of a working party to dig slit trenches when the men complained that they had not got the right spades to do the job, I seemed to have fulfilled my role reasonably satisfactorily.
Although we were free from aircraft attacks on the local airfields at Troyes, the AASF planes - particularly the Fairy Battles, now christened ‘flying coffins’ - were experiencing heavy losses. Four squadrons had been decimated in their attack on the German spearhead. The surviving squadron and their flying crew had been absorbed into the remaining operational squadrons of the AASF.
The ground staff of the decimated squadrons were evacuated to Nantes. With the Germans’ breakthrough over the Meuse, the momentum of their thrust now endangered the airfields around Troyes. Like the airfield ground crew, our movement from one site to another became very frequent between Troyes and Le Mans. Our penultimate move was the site at Le Mans, overlooking the Le Mans racecourse. In the centre of the course, many planes, both of the French and the RAF were parked on the airfield.
Most of the ward information we gleaned from the AASF Padre. He somehow managed to keep in touch with our unit, giving us all the latest from the AASF HQ. Within a few days at this site, Italy had declared war on France and ourselves. There was increased plane activity in preparation to bomb Italian targets. This was early June with its longest day approaching. This meant we were to experience the longest period for standby duty, being pre-sunrise to post- sunset.
Our outdoor life had caused our skins to be tanned and we had a toughened look about us, yes, I think we were turning into gypsies. Our makeshift tents had no closed flaps at either end and it was fortunate that all the time we had been living in the open, the weather had been both fine and warm. Each manning team had their own tenting arrangement. I slept in the command post team tent. In this sort of opened bivouac were also Laurie, David our spotter and Thomas and Eric, the height finders. This was our war council. We discussed daily the war situation and today was no exception. Eric uttered, “Each time we hit the road, intermingled with the refugees pushing their worldly goods southwards, there were masses of French soldiers fleeing with them. There does not seem to be any fight in them. If you remember, when we first arrived, there were not many cars on the road. It seemed strange that, although the French troops seemed poorly kitted out, it was always the French officers driving Citroens whenever you did see them. Going home on leave I suppose.”
I joined in and said, “The sooner we get out of France the better, I am sure that our high command do not see eye to eye with their French opposite numbers.” We had been told that the AASF was prevented from bombing the German column on the 10th May before they reached the Sedan and it was only when the Germans established their bridge heads, supported by masses of ‘ack ack’ weapons, that the French gave permission to attack these targets, causing the planes to receive heavy punishment.
Well, here we were, all we wanted were a few camels around the tent and we would pass as a Bedouin tribe. At this moment we heard the sound of a motorbike. Someone sitting nearest to the opening said it was an army messenger. There was an instant reaction after the site commander read the message. He sent for the sergeant major, who immediately ordered the unit to prepare to move. Our final encampment was two miles to the west of St Nazaire, arriving late afternoon on the 16th June. Unknown to us, crews of the AASF were in full flight. Those who could fly their planes would soon be on their way back to the UK. Ground crews and flying crews of damaged planes after destroying them were making their way by road to Brest or St Nazaire. From 8 am on the 17th June, 1940 there were long queues of both military, including members of our Regiment, HQ and RAF personnel being ferried to the Lancastria troop ship until 4 pm, when it was bombed and Sam with over 4,000 being drowned.
It was after this disaster that we received orders to evacuate, taking only the control equipment and gun breach blocks. On arriving at the quayside, the troop officer received a hostile reception. It was only when he returned to his unit we learned of this loss. The embarkation officer claimed we should have defended St Nazaire against this disaster. We were ordered back to our gunsite.
The next day, the 18th, the unit was anxious to make a getaway. Whilst at the docks, the previous day, the harbour was completely devoid of ships. Before our arrival at the quayside, ships involved in the evacuation immediately sailed for home waters after the sinking of the troop ship. This called for another ‘war council’ in the command post quarters. “Well, what do you think, Thomas? Here we are, back again in our igloo. Do you think it’s going to be every gunner for himself?”
“If it is, Alan, we have prepared our route to Spain, we have got a change of clothes - we will dump our uniforms. While waiting to embark yesterday at St Nazaire docks, did you hear the froggies shouting out France kaput, France kaput?” This was the 17th June, when Marshall Petain had made his famous radio broadcast, telling the French forces to lay down their arms and cease hostilities. Eric then joined in the war council and said, “I have not journeyed all this way from Epernay since the 10th of May, living like a nomad, to be captured here. I shall make it with you both - I have good road map of this part of France.”
“This I agree” said Thomas, “Our battery of 40 men have lived off the land with only tarpaulin sheets from the lorries and tree branches to form our shelter. A number of nights slept in the open on ground sheets. We should have no problem roughing it. The trouble here is that no-one appears to know what to do. Look, yesterday, there was a hell of a row between our officer and some base commander. He said, if we had been manning our guns, the Lancastria troop ship wouldn’t have been sunk.” Then David, a resident of this makeshift tent joined in and said “I am feeling hungry, it will be bully beef and dog biscuits again, I suppose. I shall soon be barking like a dog.” A voice outside the bivouac shouted, “Bombardier Rayment report to the Sergeant’s tent.” I recognised the voice of Sergeant Mills and immediately put on my jacket and cap as I made my way to his tent. I was ordered immediately to assemble the predictor team with the predictor and join the rest of the unit to embark at St Nazaire.
Gun crews were already dismantling the breach blocks. The whole troop were now repeating the evacuation process of the previous day. The unit had benefited from the address that Colonel Wood had given the regiment on arrival in France. He told his men that a weekly inspection would be carried out. It was possible that your transport could be the saving of your lives. No single vehicle had broken down and now it was waiting to assist in our final exit from France.
On arrival at the docks, there was only one vessel moored - a pitch trawler. This vessel, we were to learn, had made its way down the coast from Dunkirk. Around 50 British troops and a handful of French officers embarked on the deck of this trawler. There was no space below, only the engine room. I managed to squat on some coiled rope - very much like a bird on a nest. What was going through most of our minds was how soon would we be sailing, for now we were sitting ducks.
The last person to embark was Lieutenant Thompson, who was looking for some clear deck space to jump on to. He was hailed by a voice from the bridge, “If you want to come with us, you had better jump quickly.” Just before the trawler sailed, 2 Junkers 88 passed low over our heads. Those with rifles took aim, bullets were flying everywhere. This was more frightening to the fleeing troops than the bombers, since they must have been on a recky or had dropped their bombs elsewhere. Among the soldiers on board were members of the BEFHQ staff responsible for steering the remnants of British troops to the evacuation ports along the Bay of Biscay. On the day of our departure, St Nazaire was already occupied by the Germans. None of us were aware how close our escape had been.
We all had plenty of time to reflect on our good fortune in having this trawler to take us home. It took several days in the process. Was the air intelligence so good that we always moved to another airfield further back because of an impending evening air raid by the Germans? During the whole time we were in France, not a single attack was experienced, so not a single shot was fired in anger. Still, reflecting on the unseen hand that was guiding us, was it pure luck that we were not only a few hours earlier queuing to board the Lancastria?
We finally sighted the balloon barrage off Plymouth and knew then that we were home. The harbour was full of French naval vessels which had already escaped. In reality, our journey home started at Epernay, in the Champagne country on the 10th May 1940. It finally ended at Plymouth, where each serviceman was handed a hot cup of tea from the WRVS ladies.

 

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© 1998 Alan Rayment
Last revised: February 28, 1998.