Table of ContentsPreviousNextPrinter Friendly Version

Chapter 10

Two "war-Effort" Jobs (1942-43)

The June 1941 invasion of the USSR by Nazi Germany fundamentally changed the whole character of the war. As a result, both Graeme and I decided to take immediate jobs in support of the war effort, and probably, in due course to volunteer for the army also.

Ordnance Factories

Passing the final exam at the Cambridge school provided "intermediate" architectural status, which entitled one to work as an assistant. At the time, assistants were required by Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners for an ordnance factory under construction near Liverpool. Such work would also provide valuable practical experience, so both Graeme and I decided to apply and share the expenses of accommodation and an essential car.

Liverpool lodgings proved to be scarce, and we were fortunate to find an attractive, extra-large room in the Georgian terraced University area, which, unfortunately, had one somewhat significant drawback. It was an old artist's studio in the back garden with a roof largely of glass which was far from ideal during air raids. However, a colleague, who had a room in the main part of the house, agreed that he would provide shelter during severe raids, so we decided to accept the risk.

Liverpool was, of course, a prime Luftwaffe target, being the principle transatlantic terminal port, and the house was critically mid-way between the docks and the main railway marshalling yards.

I found Lancashire people to be both likeable and friendly and I found Liverpool to be a stimulating city to be staying in. It had all the multicultural diversity of a great port together with a wonderfully varied architectural heritage, from the dominating, classical St George's hall, through the old commercial 'down town' area; including some unique art nouveau and other turn-of-the-century buildings (many of which were regrettably destroyed during the air raids of that time) down to the highly impressive range of waterfront structures from the Liver Building to the great dockside warehouses.

The Philharmonic Pub, Liverpool

There was also a wonderful choice of (mostly Edwardian) restaurants and bars. Our nearby "local" for example, was the "Philharmonic" pub (near the concert hall). It had a huge bar with a massive, welcoming open fire, six adjoining, semi-circular, semi-private, plush seated drinking lobbies and several full sized billiards tables, all embellished with polished brass, embossed and colourful mirrors, and gleaming mahogany panelling.

By way of contrast, there were many, tiny pubs in the dockside areas such as "Quins", with plentiful sawdust on its floor, which specialised in Guinness and winkles.

The huge, half-built arms factory was about an 8 mile drive away on the city perimeter in an area called Kirby. The part still under construction was like any average building site: noisy, dusty and chaotic, but, in this case, teeming with humanity. This resulted from the, later-discredited, "cost-plus" nature of the contract with the builders (Holloway Bro's.) which meant, in essence, the higher the expenditures (including the wages) the higher the profits. It was common practice for existing employees to bring relatives to work, possibly as craftsmen but, more probably, as labourers, tea-boys or canteen staff. At the time, I believe, there were some 20,000 employed on the one site.

I was to be based at a small site office, intended for about 10, with responsibility for checking workmanship against specifications and drawings, both in completed buildings and those under construction, according to daily instructions. My fellow employees in that office were very ordinary, dull men, including one somewhat crude character named Jackson, who turned out to have been, until the previous week, a speculative house builder who had in all probability given his profession falsely, as 'architectural assistant' because he was in dire need of a job. (Clearly, the Sir Alexander Gibb organisation was flawed and easily hoodwinked, as so many).

It should be explained here that, in the 30's, in the context of stupid, inadequate legislation, outrageously profiteering speculative house builders had become a nationwide scourge, producing a rash of ugly, shoddy 'homes' at ridiculous prices for desperate buyers.

On only my second or third day in the office I answered the telephone to an obviously distraught woman (who must have just purchased one of his houses) who demanded to speak to Mr Jackson, and I could not fail to overhear the subsequent conversation "Mr Jackson, I've asked you repeatedly to come, and you never do, and now the roof leak is so bad that the water is pouring in, down the stairs, and filling the hall: what am I to do?" "Madam, I suggest you open the front door and let it out".

When my duties took me into the already completed part of the factory, which was already in production of munitions, I needed a special daily pass and had to observe certain regulations such as carrying no matches or lighters etc, and wearing soft footwear. The only, strictly regulated access was via 'cleanways' made of some special composition designed to minimise any chances of friction or sparks. It was a somewhat eerie procedure which took a little while to get used to. One of the commonest standard buildings, containing just two operators, was the detonator filling room. Each of these rooms was only 12 feet square and about 10 feet high, but each such building had 20 foot high earth embankments all around it. Each time I entered one of these rooms, nobody spoke, but one of the two men always walked out, and stayed out until I was ready to leave; thus there were never more than two men at serious risk at any one time.

After some months I was glad to be given a change of job, when asked to design and develop a light-proof ventilator which could be standardised for use in any of the munitions filling buildings in both that and other ordnance factories.

It proved to be a far more complex challenge than might at first be expected, because the German bomb-aimers had such sensitive equipment that even a minute amount of light could be detected and targeted. It transpired that light could get around corners as easily as for example, water. Before long, I realised that the solution would almost certainly have to be in light-weight, sheet metal form.

Fortunately, the factory's own engineering workshops had already been constructed, and equipped to a very high standard. Further, they were staffed with, amongst others, two or three excellent sheet metal workers. Working closely with those craftsmen over a period of several months, I was able to design, re-design, and try out many different versions of a ventilator. I eventually decided on one which did in fact, permit satisfactory airflow, but which was also totally light-proof, and I'm glad to say it was duly accepted as standard.

When construction work on the Liverpool factory was completed both Graeme Shankland and I were redirected to work in Alexander Gibb's architectural department under 'Bill' (later Sir William Holford) at another new ordnance factory at Swynnerton, near Stafford. However, I opted for a complete change, by accepting an offer to participate in a totally different form of "War Effort" work with the "Ferry Pilots" organisation, "Air Transport Auxiliary", which would give me more scope for individual initiative.

Air Transport Auxiliary

The critical necessity to both maintain and increase aircraft production was recognised in 1940 by Churchill with his appointment of Beaverbrook as Minister for Aircraft Production, and a huge new batch of civil servants forming "MAP" soon followed. Their task was the comparatively straightforward one of encouraging, and assisting as necessary, an existing, well-established industry to speed itself up, and collect its profits at shorter intervals. However, it was clear from the outset that little, if any, thought had been given to the acute problems of distributing all those new planes from factories to squadrons.

I believe it would have been vastly more satisfactory if that task had been passed to the RAF at the start. The RAF, after all, was to be the main recipient of the 'service"' and already had the critically important trained staff and expertise, and a culture of order and discipline so badly needed in a totally new organisation.

Instead the job was left to the MAP, who set up a subsidiary, termed 'Air Transport Auxiliary' (ATA) which was a misnomer from the beginning since the word 'transport' implies movement of goods, say, from A to B, which was wholly inapplicable, and the words 'Distribution Auxiliary' would have been far more appropriate. Anyway, titles apart, the result was a typical central government/civil service bodge ATA being clearly a very poor relation of MAP itself, with grossly inadequate funding and lowly status, which soon became known simply as the 'ferry pilots' organisation.

Amy Johnson

And thus, volunteer men and women pilots, some fit, some disabled, came from a variety of countries, including South and Central American, in a warm display of unity with Britain in the global struggle against fascism. One of them was Amy Johnson, heroine of solo flights to Australia, Tokyo and South Africa, who was killed, very probably by 'friendly fire' from a coastal defence battery while delivering a plane, and getting lost in fog over the Thames estuary. She, particularly, had fallen victim to the general wartime ruling of complete "radio silence", which precluded all directional radio advice, and made all flying doubly hazardous for the ferry pilots.

Against all the odds, that heroic band of pilots performed an amazing job, deserving far better treatment and rewards than they ever received.

Two main factors rendered the early ineffectiveness of ATA so serious; first, the obvious failure to quickly replace both damaged planes and total losses; second, and less obvious, the pressing needs of the factories themselves to get rid of finished planes before they started blocking their production lines.

Production lines for vehicles (trucks, jeeps or tanks) had no such problems, because their products could be readily driven away and parked in nearby fields. By contrast, planes were so large, clumsy and vulnerable to damage, that they were extremely difficult to find space for, particularly on the factories' own crowded airstrips.

I was employed by ATA in 1942 for six months as 'Clerk of Works' (a building industry term for overseer) with responsibility for erecting the buildings needed to transform what they grandiloquently called 'Luton airport' into a ferry pilot's training centre. In fact, the 'port' consisted of a modest-sized, uneven field, exactly as the last grazing cattle had left it, with two rather pathetic hangars, a few poor quality offices, and a telephone. My most pressing 'briefs' were welfare buildings for the men and women pilots, including dormitories, toilets and showers, restrooms and a canteen. Training school facilities, including a lecture theatre, were also required. I also had responsibility for some ancillary buildings needed at an emergency landing field some ten miles away, at Barton.

There was only one supervisor concerned with my responsibilities. I believe his name was Thoroughgood, or something similar, and he never interfered, but rather, was consistently friendly and helpful: I was fortunate too, that the builders involved were cooperative. One day I was chatting to Thoroughgood, the excellent woman secretary (whose name I believe was Minnie) and the jolly billeting officer (who was intended to find accommodation in Luton for the pilots until I had built dormitories for them), when an unimpressive little man with much gold braid and clearly highly self- opinionated, approached us and announced himself as the new station commandant. Within moments of his moving on, we four almost unanimously named him "the Twerp". As can easily happen between humans, that event signalled some kind of bond between us, and we seemed then to coalesce into a sort of ad hoc, totally informal 'site committee'. In due course the other three seemed happy to have me as their sort of chairman. All four of us were keen to make as good a job as possible of creating a decent environment for those courageous pilots - although as someone put it, it resembled "trying to make a silk purse from a sow's ear" - and the existence of our new site committee underpinned that commitment.

In that friendly context, I greatly enjoyed the work with its scope for successful organising, improvising, and initiative, although it involved very long and exhausting days.

Although the passage of more than 60 years have naturally dimmed most memories, some were so vivid as to somehow revive a measure of recollection. One of these occurred only two or three days after the arrival of 'the Twerp' when he insisted on flying me to visit the building works going on at Barton. The aircraft was a four-seater "Fairchild" with its main passenger seat to the left of the pilot. As with most single-engined planes, the exhaust which naturally became almost red-hot during flight, ran along one side, in this case on the right. When we reached Barton he banked steeply left in order to turn to the left and as he did so, a column of liquid fell past my window. I jogged his elbow and pointed to it, and he blandly commented "spot of rain, old chap". But there was not a cloud to be seen and the sun was blinding, so I feared the worst. Sure enough, after landing, I climbed up and found the petrol filler cap to be missing; therefore he, the station commandant had broken the absolute top priority rule of flying, namely that the person piloting must make a personal pre-flight check to ensure that all is safe before take-off.

Had he banked right instead of left, we would have perished immediately as the plane would have become an instant fireball. However, he was too pompous to bring himself to admit to such a serious oversight or to attempt to apologize for endangering my life. In fact, it remained my closest brush with death until I was in actual battle action in France and Holland a few years later. I decided he was not just a twerp, but a highly dangerous idiot.

On a few subsequent occasions, during discussions on site about a variety of problems, he was visibly riled when some present would pay more attention to my views than to his, but he never spoke, knowing that I held evidence which could wreck his career for good.

Trials of the extra high-powered Napier "merlin" engine; and a happy coincidence.

During the battle of Falaise (see Chapter 17i) the lives of both myself and my tank crew were undoubtedly saved by the action of a "Tornado" pilot, who had used his unique rocket firing gun to destroy the near-by German "Tiger" tank which was poised to attack us with its exceptionally lethal 88mm armour piercing gun. Thus, both I and my crew owe a debt of gratitude to the Napier test pilot and his group of faithful instrument watchers, who made possible the very remarkable and highly successful fighter - the Tornado.

The Tornado Fighter

Building works at Luton were continually interrupted by bizarre events of which the most frequent were caused by Napiers, the famous aircraft-engine builders, who had been given the lease of one of the hangars, where they kept their second hand Fairey Battle the largest single-engined monoplane ever built. This they had transformed into a flying 'test bed' by replacing its normal Rolls Royce with their new ultra-high-powered Merlin engine. This was destined for use in the new Tornado fighter, which was intended to replace both the famous Hurricane and the Spitfire. The Battle's fuselage was crammed with performance instruments and a team of young and terrified laboratory assistants to watch and record them during flights. From time to time the highly courageous test pilot would take the Battle up to 20,000 feet, and then put it into a dive under full power, straight towards the airfield where we watched, hypnotized by fear that the great wings would be torn off as he levelled off.

One morning I was crossing the airfield when an ominous roar caused me to look up and see, to my horror, a (four-engined) Lancaster bomber plane coming in and touch down, and just manage to stop before reaching the perimeter fence. It transpired that the young pilot had been invalided out of the RAF with some minor health problem, and had opted to become a ferry pilot. He was supposed to deliver the bomber to a nearby squadron, but had noticed he was over Luton where his girlfriend lived, and took a snap decision to try to see her! I explained that he had been extremely lucky not to have caused numerous fatalities and that when the commandant returned shortly he would be in very deep trouble unless he moved on immediately.

So I called out the 'committee' urgently who agreed that he must take his great plane out as he had come in, between the two hangars. To reassure him (and ourselves!) we measured his wing span and the available space between the two buildings, which proved just sufficient if he steered carefully mid-way between them.

With superhuman efforts we then pulled the Lancaster's tail around until it was facing in the right direction. We then spotted a large new building under construction on a nearby hilltop which provided a prominent and convenient 'centre line target' which he must keep his eyes on and aim for, in order to clear the two hangars. It then only remained for us to insist he visit his girl by road next time and wish him luck. With enormous good fortune, he then actually took off successfully and presumably, completed his delivery.

The Disappearing V.I.Ps

One day in late summer 1942, when our building programme, particularly in respect of the pilots dormitories, restrooms, canteen and other basic facilities was going well, and only required a few more weeks to completion, we learned to our dismay that the Ministry of Aircraft Production headquarters was planning a top level visit of inspection of our work by the deputy Minister, and the usual accompanying bevy of "top brass".

So, an almost spontaneous meeting of our" site committee" assembled to discuss what action we could take to stave off this intrusion, which could only interfere seriously with our then smooth-running programme, and delay completion dates. Our opposition to the visit was compounded by the Deputy Minister having already made a bad name for himself by being particularly aloof and uncooperative, and by the generally superior attitude always adopted by head-quarters staff, who never hid their views that we were inferior mortals, which indeed was truly reflected in practice by our much inferior salaries and conditions.

So, my three good colleagues turned to me for ideas, and I was prompted to produce one which I felt reasonably confident might succeed namely driving away our intrusive and unwanted visitors by the simple expedient of overwhelming them with an unbelievably powerful stench, and our 'site committee' were happy to accept the idea and trust it would succeed.

When setting out the foundations for one of the larger pilot's buildings some months before, I had stumbled across a cess pit belong to the original farmhouse (long since demolished) whose contents could only be described as severely "over-ripe", since it had clearly not been emptied for several decades.

During many months of usual negotiations and discussions in the course of development of our various building projects, I had always got on well with the Borough Engineer of Luton who, naturally, controlled the all-important "scent bottle", the nickname for the powerful, large lorry-mounted pump used to empty cess pits. As expected, he readily agreed to make it available to us on the day of the Ministerial visit.

So, on "D day" I had the "scent bottle" in position, ready to start pumping, beside the cess pit. We then "held our fire", until we could see the familiar retinue of big, black limousines bearing our unwanted guests. Then, when they were within a short distance from entering the airport, I gave the "command" to start pumping. After a few moments the big cars pulled up and stopped, but as their respective chauffeurs opened the doors to usher out their distinguished passengers, one by one they visibly collapsed, as if they had been caught by a poison gas attack without protective masks, as indeed they had, and they quickly re-entered their cars, and clearly must have given the time- honoured orders to the coach-man "drive fast, and don't spare the horses". Indeed, within minutes, the site had been totally purged not only of the "top brass" who might well have disappeared forever, and with whom none of us had exchanged a single word, but of everyone else, for it was universally agreed to have been the most powerful stench ever known to man.

We then, naturally, made tracks as quickly as possible ourselves, to our favourite "local" to celebrate our resounding success, while trusting there might be sufficient wind during the night to make work on the site possible the next day.

On another occasion involving Barton, the "Twerp" insisted on a young Australian trainee pilot flying me there to give him added experience. Having done the trip so often, I naturally offered him some advice on the exceptionally difficult approach to the landing strip. This was due to a small hill followed by a deep dyke which blocked the natural "glide path". Regrettably, he ignored my warning and losing height too early, narrowly missed a man ploughing the exceptionally rough turnip field. We literally "bounced" over the dyke, and with incredible luck finally touched down on the landing strip.

Chapter 11

Conscientious Objection To Conscription: The Outcome

In the mid '30s, in line with increased Nazi expansion, public opinion hardened, and Edwin and Molly pressured me (without success) to volunteer to join some army unit. Then, with little warning, a call-up notice was issued to include all men born on, or before, 1st November 1917. Since I was born on the 2nd of November 1917 - to my huge relief - I escaped, and my father gave the impression of having been "cheated". That call-up, in fact caught numerous school friends, some of whom were later killed at Dunkirk. I recall being distressed that my mother, Molly, whom I loved dearly, was so influenced by tradition that she was prepared for her only living son to be put at serious risk, in order to side with my father.

Fortunately by 1938, compared with the 1914/18 environment, enormous improvements had taken place in the public attitude to "conchies". There were no longer threats of verbal or physical abuse, or even imprisonment. In fact, nation-wide, "tribunals" were established, to judge the sincerity of objectors. They were, of course, chosen from local "elites", bearing in mind that they were going to be invested with the unique powers of actually denying the War Office the services of some potentially useful soldiers. Since the whole culture of reluctant tolerance of "objectors" had by now become official policy, Edwin explained that he no longer disagreed with my having registered as one, provided I promised faithfully to abide by the eventual tribunal's ruling!

Following my registering in October '39, I attended, in Cambridge in November '39 the tribunal, which I think consisted of some three or four men, and two or three women. All I clearly recall is that they gave me complete, "unconditional" exemption from conscription, and, when leaving, one of the (male) members took me aside to say how impressed he had been by the case I had made (whatever it may have been!) Some of the other objectors attending had been given exemption, but only on condition that they joined up in the forces as stretcher bearers, or undertook first aid or some other air raid precaution activities. Thus I was left entirely free to pursue my architectural training, or whatever else I chose to do.

In fact, world war events developed so quickly that my complete exemption from military activities was neither required, nor in fact wanted from then on.

Chapter 12

From Civilian To Soldier Overnight

In early '42, the army had suffered an unusually high loss of Royal Engineer officers, and was, therefore, advertising for architects and others to volunteer, on the understanding that they would receive "direct commissions". I therefore visited the local recruiting office and completed the appropriate application forms, in mid August '42. Somehow, inexplicably, over the following months the War Office managed to misplace and muddle up my application, and, four months later (without apologies of course) they explained that since the act of volunteering was irrevocable, that I must, instead, enter the "ranks" and, to emphasize their point, they enclosed a rail voucher to take me to Clitheroe, a small North Lancashire market town near Preston, with an instruction to report to "Low Moor" Barracks. Low Moor was an abandoned, six- storey, 19th century cotton mill which had been, around 1930, condemned for people to work in, but which the army had commandeered for soldiers to live in. It rose directly from the waterside of the River Ribble, and its entire structure of stone walls and brick arched floors, with concrete stairs and landings, was permanently damp, through and through. The ceiling heights were so restricted that upper bunk occupants inevitably hit their heads when they sat up. There was no sign anywhere of any form of either space or water heating, and the extremely limited lighting outlets with their small, blue bulbs only succeeded in emphasizing the pervading gloom. Washing facilities consisted of basins on the open-air stairway landings, with single cold water taps. The only toilets and showers were five stair- flights below, on the ground floor. By the bunks there was not a single hook, nor any form of locker or cupboard for clothing, toiletries or personal valuables.

On arrival day with my fellow train passengers, I reported at 7 pm and was told to queue for supper, but when, by 10 pm none had appeared we had no choice but to go to bed hungry and try to get relief from sub-consciousness, in an atmosphere reminiscent of a slave ship.

We were woken at 6 am by corporals or sergeants employing numerous rude or otherwise unpleasant expletives, and then put to work in very long-houred days (after being kitted out with uniforms etc) on a programme of general infantry training including drilling, PT, gas drill, rifle shooting, first aid, Bren gun use, map reading, field craft, grenade throwing, and long route- marches. On returning from one of those, one of my colleagues (probably exhausted) unfortunately dropped the Bren gun he was carrying into the river from a small footbridge leading into the barracks. This drove the sergeant into such a fury that he ordered all of us to link hands and form a human chain across the fast-flowing Ribble until we found the precious weapon.

The following morning one of the young men who had been one of my fellow travellers on the train from London, showed his opinion of his new environment extremely forcibly by throwing himself off the top landing to his death on the concrete parade ground.

Following several weeks of activities in which most of us got very wet, including particularly during the "human chain" event in the river, several of us developed 'flu, and the numbers involved soon exceeded the capacity of the official "sick bay", so there was no alternative other than to "nurse" each other, which of course, only made matters worse. The medical officer was then forced to requisition some coaches to take us to the nearby military hospital, which had previously been a lunatic asylum, which it unfortunately resembled all too well. On arrival at the hospital, although it was snowing and we all had temperatures, we were told to queue outside the quartermaster's stores in order to "draw" our uniforms, which all convalescing soldiers were obliged to wear, consisting of white shirt, red tie, and blue trousers, always assuming, of course, that we did eventually recover!

By chance, we arrived on Christmas Eve, and the gallant nurses had done their best to make the environment as cheerful as possible. In my case, flu had progressed into pleurisy and I well recall the apparently endless floods of sweat that night.

When the awful truth had dawned on me that the incompetent bureaucracy at the War Office had, instead of my enjoying a relatively calm existence as an officer, condemned me to a somewhat painful and turbulent few months deep in the "ranks", I recall thinking that, if and when I ever became an officer myself, that it might prove an experience worth having endured.

Further, I might very well have considered at the time, that if I had been able to survive Charterhouse that I should be able to survive the 'ranks'. In fact, months later, when I was completing sapper training, my friendly training sergeant quietly took me aside and showed me his concluding performance report on me, in which he said "this man will never make an NCO (non- commissioned officer, i.e. corporal or sergeant) but he should make a good officer".

Chapter 13

Army: Basic And Sapper Training

When we were discharged from hospital (chapter 12) we were returned to Low Moor the "barracks from hell". It was explained earlier that the old Victorian cotton mill had been condemned under building regulations in 1930, as a place of work, let alone habitation, and it was in fact totally demolished around 1945.

It could only be fairly described as an environment of quite unique and unrelieved discomfort, underpinned by the pervasive damp evident everywhere, and the impossibility of feeling warm anywhere in it. In those early months, much of our time was of course spent outdoors, where the temperature was little different from that within, which slightly reduced the shock of emerging each morning. The only plus for the "old pile" was that it did, of course, provide shelter from the rain, which, being Lancashire, was plentiful.

"facts of life" in "the ranks"

The factor which naturally affected us most was the behaviour of the N.C.Os (sergeants and corporals) directly in control of the training regime and our lives generally. With a few notable exceptions, they were mostly bullies, who seemed to vie with each other over how best to harry us. In fact, they caused us so much "grief" that we came to hate them to such an extent that we had few reserves of hatred left to extend towards the real Nazi enemy whom they were supposed to be training us to dispatch.

Thus our days were not only physically, but also psychologically exhausting, to the extent that one looked forward eagerly to the oblivion of sleep between the coarse army blankets, only to be woken at 6.00 am by an NCO shouting: "wakey, wakey, you idle lot" "hands off cocks, on socks". Fortunately, it transpired that that clearly exceptional effort of scanning had totally exhausted their poetic potential, so we were spared any further rhyming ribaldry in future.

The NCOs were, of course, forever awarding punishments for all manner of alleged misdemeanours; these usually took the form of "fatigues"; for example, potato peeling. This would involve a group of, say, 15 men assembled in one of the dungeon- like lower rooms of the barracks, presented with some 20 hundred- weight sacks of potatoes. There was just one, ancient peeling machine which only worked intermittently; the great majority had to be peeled by hand, involving very many soul-destroying hours of unsurprisingly careless and wasteful labour.

There were various extensive areas of concrete or paving adjoining the barracks where we had to "fall in" into lines, to endure endless bouts of physical training and, of course, drilling. The latter included ceremonial marching practice for occasions such as "passing out" events, and all the complexities of handling one's rifle when "on parade" such as "presenting arms", or "shouldering arms" etc. Mostly, this all took place in daylight; however, sometimes the timetable called for drill before sunrise in total darkness. Chaos then reigned, particularly when the ground was icy, and endless collisions occurred.

One of the most unpopular training locations was the "digging ground" where we had to dig "slit" ("protective" trenches) in "quick time", goaded on by the NCOs, in ground which was at times muddy, and at others, frozen hard.

Once, at nightfall, we were trucked to an unknown area, divided into groups, each with a map and compass, and told to rendezvous at a particular point. This "night exercise" had been conceived grossly irresponsibly, because, before long, in the pitch darkness, a young man near me, walked over the unfenced edge of an old quarry and was killed instantly. The obvious implication namely that our lives were not valued particularly highly naturally did little to bolster morale.

Unsurprisingly, the obligatory activities which annoyed us most, were those which could be grouped under the heading of "bull" (abbreviated from bullshit) implying trivial actions to assist compliance with various aspects of army discipline, exemplified by the well-known phrase: "spit and polish". I well recall, in fact, making a useful reality of that phrase once when standing stiffly at attention in line awaiting a colonel's inspection, glancing down and noticing a blemish on one boot, aiming carefully and deftly spitting on same, and then wiping it clean in a swift move with the back of one glove, all done in a trice.

A typical and highly irritating example of "bull" was the routine kit inspection. For this, one was expected to display on one's bed the whole gamut of army-issue clothing, footwear, "housewife" (needle and thread), cutlery, etc etc, all according to a printed inventory and displayed according to a pre-determined pattern, always assuming the items involved could all in fact be found, bearing in mind that there was no provision whatever (by way of hook, shelf, drawer etc) for keeping anything tidily (for example, separately from those of the man in the bunk above or below).

Probably the most bizarre of all my army experiences was this: one day at Low Moor barracks, a sergeant picked out a group of twelve or fifteen of us and gave us the order to "strip off" fully and line up for a "short-arm inspection".

Standing, side-by-side, naked and shivering, we naturally queried what could "short-arm" possibly mean? A stroppy young second-lieutenant medical officer then appeared, ludicrously overdressed in full "Sam Brown" leather belted officer's full dress uniform, complete with "swagger cane" and started his examination at one end of our "line up" by lifting the first penis, with obvious disdain, with the end of his cane to examine it, and then repeating, what had by now become obvious was a "V.D" (venereal disease) inspection, along our line, thus ensuring that whatever individual infection (if any) might have been present, would have been well and truly distributed.

Looking back now on the enigma of the term "short-arm" I believe it could well have come about through the circumstances, let us say around 1890, in which an aged Victorian War Office clerk had been instructed to draft an army standard instruction for men to undergo a VD examination. He can be imagined as a 50 year old, perched on his high stool, quill pen at the ready, and so prudish that he could not bring himself to actually commit the dread word "penis" to paper, so had no option but to think up an alternative of his own, (hence "short arm") which, maybe, in the Alice in Wonderland-like Army world could serve as well as any other.

One of our "saving graces" in the ranks was the seemingly endless supply of humorous stories, which were, of course, important morale boosters. In the following typical example, the word "detail" means a group of men allotted a particular duty, and "adjutant" is the title of an administrative company officer, with, apparently, primarily bureaucratic responsibilities.

One hot summer morning, a latrine-emptying detail were carrying their over-full buckets past the adjutant's office, when a light breeze wafted a piece of paper from the top of a bucket through one of his open windows Sergeant: "quick, you, catch it before it lands on his desk" "too late sarge, he'd signed it"! Realistic, and therefore doubly entertaining stories such as that one were so plentiful, that I once began to imagine that there must exist, somewhere, a hidden "cell" of story-mongers, who would concoct each one, check it for laughs and then disseminate it.

The very real physical pains and discomforts which we had to endure during our months of basic (infantry) training, and sapper (Royal Engineer) training, involving straining bodies to their absolute limits whether in cross-country exercises or lifting extremely heavy sections of bridging equipment were exacerbated by the near impossibility of recuperating properly from them in the harsh and comfortless barracks environment.

However, the degree of commonly shared aches and pains did engender a great spirit of camaraderie, which naturally expressed itself best on occasions when we were able to get away from Low Moor and visit one of the Clitheroe pubs, and, at times, get a decent restaurant meal to supplement the woefully terrible barracks food. My "mates" at those infrequent and welcome times of relaxation usually included complete strangers from a wide range of backgrounds, thrown together at random in the course of the training programme, who, somehow, over time, coalesced into smaller groups through the interplay of personalities and common interests.

One of my regular companions on a "night out" was an irrepressible Cockney builder named Stanley Allibone, from Billericay in Essex, who was always entertaining company. Later in the war, he became involved in an incident which very well illustrates the sort of personality he was. When, several years after I knew him in "the ranks" and he had completed his engineer officer training, he was "posted" to a "Line of Communications" Field company, (being just over age for front line duties) with particular responsibilities for constructing "local bridges" to replace those destroyed in the war. On one occasion he had been awarded the "Croix de guerre" by General de Gaulle for a particularly valuable new bridge in France.

Queen Wilhelmina

The incident in question happened in Holland, where Stanley had just completed a new bridge but not yet opened it. (It was a well-established practice that no traffic of any kind was allowed over a new bridge until it had been declared "Open" by the officer who had been responsible for building it). At the time, a (not uncommon) radio failure had resulted in his not having been warned about the imminent arrival of a VIP, so he was taken totally by surprise when a large obviously important group of civilians, led by an imposing, rather stout lady (who indeed proved to be none other than Queen Wilhelmina herself) walked straight on to his unopened bridge. In answering his protests, the Queen approached Stanley, saying "Sir, I am the Queen", to which he immediately replied "In that case Madam, I am the King" Following her formal complaint, all Hell was let loose, and Stanley was ordered back to the War Office in London immediately, where he was stripped (quite illegally) of his Croix de Guerre, and threatened with reduction to "the ranks" or worse, whatever that might imply.

By chance, in the barracks one day, I met a young man on the point of qualifying as an architect named James Cousins: we soon became friends and remained so for many years. In 1945, James was one of the design team responsible for creating the still-popular South Bank "Festival Hall"; later he went on to become Chief Architect for British Rail.

After some six weeks of "basic training" the emphasis changed for the remaining twelve weeks to "Sapper training" and at this juncture, we were much relieved to be moved out of the forbidding old barracks into some "Nissan" (corrugated iron) or similar huts, erected in the neighbouring fields. They, at least, provided a dry environment where it was possible, at times, to feel warm, since each hut had its own coal burning stove. The training section of which I was part, was housed together in one hut, which facilitated friendships and mutual assistance. Further, we were blessed by being overseen by a corporal who was totally different to all the NCOs we had suffered before. His name was Corporal Grives, and he lived in the hut with us. He had a good tenor voice, and at times he would sing from a currently popular song "you are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when clouds are grey". He was fair in administering basic discipline and he also had considerable Sapper knowledge, and was thus, at times, able to help us with "homework" after lectures

With hindsight, I believe it was the replacement of the desperately tedious "infantry" training of endless drilling and the like by the comparatively dramatic scenario of the clearly constructive activities of bridging, which helped me to see the point of all our training labours up to date. These had resulted in my putting on a whole stone in weight over the 18 weeks, and it was all muscle!

We began bridging training, with the basic "small box girder" (SBG) bridge, which had only modest span capacity but would carry great loads, and was in fact a bridge I was able to make good use of later in numerous actions. (See below).

But it was, of course, the brilliantly conceived and designed "Bailey bridge" which really caught the imagination because of its amazing adaptability, which enabled one standard "panel" to be inter-connected to others by high tensile steel pins to produce bridges with a wide range of spans and loading capacities.

The standard Bailey "panel" resembled an empty picture frame of welded steel members, with bracings criss-crossing between its corners, approximately nine feet long and five feet high. Special oak lifters about three feet long and rounded for comfort, could be passed through a panel at each end and at the middle. Thus with a man each side having the "lifter" in the "crooks" of their bent arms, six men together could lift a panel and carry it where required.

Our final days at Clitheroe were extremely busy ones, involving both numerous lectures and tests regarding Bailey bridging and further practical training involving launching the basic bridge across the river Ribble, and an introduction to pontoon bridging. My recollection of that period is that lifting the various items of equipment seemed to get heavier day by day, so, when the time for our leave to begin eventually arrived we were well and truly ready for it!

Chapter 14

Army: officer training

Getting a foot on the first rung of the ladder leading up from "the ranks" to a commission depended, first, on a recommendation from one's training sergeant (Chapter 12). The next stage was successfully passing a three-day, locally convened "W.O.S.B." (War Office Selection Board) which was staffed partly by medical officers trained in psychiatry (a new development) who, in normal army fashion, soon became known as "trick cyclists". Stories about them naturally came quickly into circulation, for example: Psychiatrist "Tell me, sapper, what are you thinking about now?" "Sexual intercourse sir" "Ah, very interesting" "Tell me, why?" "Never think about anything else, sir".

The next, seriously tough test, was to survive the four-week "pre-OCTU course, organised by a highly disciplined "crack" infantry battalion, based at Wrotham, on the north Downs, in Kent. The training staff were non-commissioned officers who, at times, displayed the same sadistic tendencies as those at Clitheroe had done, while the sergeants and corporals involved at Wrotham had the unusual opportunity of being able to harry those already chosen to become officers. The base was sited at the top of a long, grassy but quite steep hill, so, naturally, orders to run down and back up that hillside were all too commonly given, and were extremely exhausting.

Graham Sutherland

By extraordinary chance, my friend, artist Graham Sutherland and his wife Cathy lived reasonably close to the training base, so I was able to enjoy numerous, very welcome breaks with them. Along with Henry Moore and John Piper, Graham had been appointed a "war artist", and had just achieved particular prominence by being commissioned to paint a portrait of Churchill (who, in fact, disliked it, and later ordered it to be destroyed.)

The final stage in training for a commission was the actual "OCTU" itself. The Royal Engineers Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) was situated at Newark, Notts, near a stretch of the river Trent which was particularly suitable for bridging training. Since we were now "cadets", living conditions at Newark were rather better than at Clitheroe. However, the outdoor physical challenges were even more demanding than they had been there. Once, we were expected to cook, consume, and digest one's own steak lunch within 30 minutes, and then immediately set off to cover six miles in quick time in approximately 100 yard stages, alternately marching and running, in full "battle order" carrying a Bren machine gun.

The "Battle Course", spread over many mountainous miles in north Wales, included practice "house to house" fighting in a ruined village. Using considerable amounts of live ammunition, it was all too highly realistic. Our resulting exhaustion was compounded through having to sleep in makeshift bivouacs in appalling weather conditions.

There was also a great deal of theoretical training including lectures on "care of men", and, naturally the whole vast range of traditional sapper activities, including bridging; minefield clearance; demolitions, construction of roads, airfields, and accommodation; also water supply, including purification, storage and distribution. At one stage I was sent to join a brief, intensive Army School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine course on contagious diseases, which, (particularly in Italy) were already claiming more lives than battle-field actions themselves. On the whole I had found the course interesting and understandable, so I did not find the final tests too severe, and thus finished sufficiently well to be rated "top cadet".

The Surprising Accolade

At the final "passing out" parade, we were all mystified to hear the OCTU commandant announce that it had been decided that the top cadet should be rewarded by the honour of a posting to what was apparently already considered the "creme de la creme" of all RE units the newly formed "First Assault Brigade," Royal Engineers. "Assault Brigade" sounded dramatic, with obvious D-day connotations, but which we, at that stage, (presumably for good security reasons) knew nothing whatever about. The Brigade in question, was, of course, part of 79th Armoured Division my eventual "home" which is described later.

It did not prove possible to give immediate effect to my "best cadet" award of a posting to the Assault Brigade, so, after leaving OCTU at Newark, I was moved to the "Officers holding Battalion" at Halifax in Yorkshire. Following arrival there, I was interviewed by the Colonel in charge, who had my details in front of him, which included my university degree entered as "MA Cantab" so he said, "I see you were at Canterbury". To me, it seemed understandable that he might not be aware of the archaic Oxbridge customs of both universities using the Latinised versions of their names when describing degrees; however, I would have expected an officer of his seniority to have noticed the incompatibility of the spelling involved with his suggestion.

The 50 or so officers awaiting new postings were accommodated in a large early Victorian house in which I was allotted a bed on the ground floor. Before long I was delighted to meet none other than Stanley Alibone (Chapter 13), who, too, had just completed OCTU and, naturally, we soon made our way together to celebrate at a nearby pub.

After much reminiscing, and many pints, I found my way back to my bed, but had not yet found a toilet in the unfamiliar surroundings. It was a hot summer evening, and the lower half of the large old sash window was open, overlooking a flower bed. Needing to relieve myself, the open window naturally beckoned, and all went well except for a very small drip, which regrettably, found its way on to the toe of one of the boots belonging to the officer in a nearby bed, who, I had wrongly assumed was asleep throughout.

In fact, I later learned from another, friendly officer, that he (the boots' owner) had witnessed the event and had somewhat overdone his moral outrage, which tallied with the extraordinary coincidence that he was apparently a Christian Scientist (that wretched "religion" which had plagued me since boyhood). In the morning, the miserable man duly put in a doubtless sanctimonious and exaggerated complaint to the Colonel, claiming that I had, deliberately (he averred) relieved myself over his boots.

Within a whisker of dismissal

Before long I was summoned to the medical centre, where there were some two or three medical officers, of which one was a woman. I can recall being a little worried about the potential embarrassment of being called in by the woman doctor, which, as it happened, I was, and, in fact, she proved to be my saviour. She had not been surprised by the incident in view of it having resulted from a sudden meeting with an old comrade, and she clearly did not have a particularly high regard for the Colonel and his talk of "behaviour unbecoming an officer and a gentleman".

She explained that the Colonel had requested her to endorse his recommendation that I should be "cashiered" (stripped of my commission and relegated to the "ranks") and that she had declined to support his request, saying "if we got rid of every officer who did something unusual when drunk, the army would be dangerously short of officers".

Before long I was given a posting to a field company stationed at Skegness, a Lincolnshire coast resort. I recall that the major commanding the company was fair and reasonable, but that the officers on the whole were not particularly memorable. Being a mere second lieutenant, I was naturally at first, only given the somewhat routine tasks such as taking pay parades; that was, until a highly unusual duty arose which was anything but routine, which had naturally been allotted to the company since it was already "on the spot".

The Unforgettable 'Death-Rattle'

Before long, a group of young officers suggested I should join them on a visit to a dance at the nearby large hospital for badly injured soldiers, which I did, in spite of dancing being far from one of my favourite activities.

In an early interval, it transpired that the young woman I had partnered was a nurse, and she only had permission to attend the dance provided she returned to her ward at intervals to watch the group of seriously wounded young men for whom she had particular responsibility. It soon became clear to me that her main worry was not to lose sight of me, and she asked me to accompany her on her first 'duty visit' to the ward, where one young patient was emitting such terrible groans that I asked if she could give him some pain relief, when, plainly impatient to return to the dance, she simply said: 'Oh, it's the Death Rattle they all do it' and hoped he would 'hurry up and go'. I then managed to get away and was able to rejoin my colleagues. I recall feeling deeply distressed that the war had already so brutalised society that it had even warped the humanity of nurses normally paragons of kindness and compassion.

A very lonely mine-clearing duty

By coincidence it happened that the extensive beach at Skegness bore an extraordinary resemblance, both geologically and in gradient, to the beach at Arromanches in Normandy, which had been chosen as the main British objective on D-day, and that the War Office therefore wished to use it for practice landings. Unfortunately, during the largely spurious panic about a possible Nazi invasion in 1939, it had been decided to mine the Skegness beach. Regrettably, at the time, no one had thought of the vital importance of keeping a record of the area mined, and the distribution of mines within it.

Skegness Beach

In view of Skegness beach being so popular, it was highly irresponsible of the then town council not to have insisted on such a plan at the time, and then kept it under lock and key. Thus fell to us, the highly unenviable task of both finding and, hopefully, de-fusing all those aging mines whose characteristics were totally unknown to us.

The sergeant involved showed me the site, which was all too clearly marked by a small, but ominous crater, marking, as the sergeant put it "the slight mistake" of my unfortunate young predecessor, of whom nothing had been found beyond one or two buttons. The police had over-reacted, and shut down the town for at least 500 yards from the sea front, resulting in an eerie silence which accentuated my enforced loneliness after the sergeant had retired to a safe distance.

After eventually locating the first mine, I was able to carefully remove most of the damp sand surrounding it, and then see that it was so severely corroded that it must have been an old model even when first laid, meaning that, even if its "mark number" could be identified, its original data would be already out of print, meaning that attempts to de-fuse it would be simply suicidal. Carefully avoiding any "slight mistakes" I therefore placed the mine in the jeep and instructed the sergeant to drive it gently to the dump for destruction.

I would, in fact, have felt far more at ease with the situation had I been dealing with present day German mines, with which I was fairly familiar, because, while still at Halifax, I had been asked to prepare to give both lectures and demonstrations regarding de-fusing the more common German examples. Further, nearly new German mines would not have been corroded, unlike the rusty old English relic I was faced with.

Looking back over my various narrow escapes during the war, (others are described in later chapters), I believe the Skegness beach incident was the most nerve-wracking of all, largely because of the enforced solitude involved.

Table of ContentsPreviousNextPrinter Friendly Version