A MISSPENT YOUTH?
WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR THEN?
Robert (Bob) Angell
In December 1938 I had my 17th birthday and, with no regrets, left school where my ambition for several years to enter the film industry had been ridiculed and even discouraged. My Mother and Father, though completely ignorant of what my aspirations might really mean, were supportive and even suggested I might find out about any training that existed for such an improbable career compared to my Father’s one of architect, itself considered pretty Bohemian compared to my Mother’s family of medical and legal people.
My researches meant that I signed up for a course in Cinematography at the Central London Polytechnic to start in September 1939. To fill in the time between, they suggested classes in Chemistry, Physics and Electricity would be of benefit and so I spent a few hours each week with the equivalent of A level students at various Poly off-shoots round Oxford Circus, commuting from home in Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire. The classes were not exactly stimulating but I was free from the often stifling Victorian atmosphere of Marlborough and had plenty of friends locally and we all thought we were real lads drinking the local mild beer at 4d a pint!
Britain in early 1939 was in crisis – Hitler had marched into the Rhineland, Austria and Czechoslovakia but the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had received Hitler’s assurance that that was the end of his territorial ambitions and the PM flew home after his historic meeting waving a piece of paper proclaiming ‘Peace in our time’. The newsreel shot of Chamberlain wearing atritby hat and his Homburg standing on the aircraft steps at Croydon must have featured in a thousand documentaries on the history of World War II.
The radio, or as we called it, the wireless was our main source of news and it became a nightly ritual to gather round the rather posh polished wooden set with its cutout sunrise design on the front and listen to the sombre tones of Stuart Hibberd reading the ‘Nine 0’clock News’. Not, I think, from any sense of patriotism or duty, my best friend, Peter Jude, and I joined the local Territorial Army unit at Taplow – 394 Battery of the Royal Bucks Yeomanry who boasted 4.5″ Howitzers but only comparatively recently had changed their name from Royal Bucks Hussars and that meant horses to pull the guns! But early in 1939, they were mechanised after fashion with Morris Commercials for this task and an assortment of 15cwt trucks for additional transport.
Peter was lucky and had been given a car, an Austin 7 Ruby Saloon and so he gave me a lift to the weekly and sometimes week-end parades in the Drill Hall, Taplow. I don’t remember getting a uniform after signing on as 902927 Gunner Angell R. but some of the old hands donned of an evening their ‘blues’ or dress uniform – dark blue jackets and brass buttons with chain mail on the shoulders, tight fitting trousers with a red stripe down the side and spurs! We rookies were quietly envious but it was a friendly outfit especially in the bar afterwards when Peter and I were introduced to the delights of Wethereds Brown Ale.
Two local lads with whom I’ve remained friends ever since were John and Alan Gunn, 902926 and 902928. Goodness knows why Gunner Angell came numerically between two brothers! For no particular reason thatI can recall, I was told I would be a signaller, certainly an essential part of the operation of a field artillery battery. What it meant was that I had to learn the Morse Code and both to send and receive messages at sufficient speed to pass some sort of test entitling me to wear crossed flags on my battle dress when I eventually had it issued.
The usual device was a prion buzzer attached to an ancient form of telephone connected to the other end by cable wound out and in by a metal reel device. But if this failed, as it often seemed to, communication by Morse had to resort to a flashing light or even blue and white flags sighted on a suitable hill! Like riding a bicycle, I reckon it’s something you never forget and I thi nk, in an emergency, I could still send and receive a reasonably coherent message by Morse.
One other skill had to be acquired and that was stripping wire and making a neat and strong join covered with the least possible buige by black insulating tape. Being a signaller meant that I learned nothing of guns and gunnery except passing mysterious technical instructions parrot fashion by phone or buzzer.
Came the early Summer and 394 Battery’s annual camp took place at Chiseldon near Swindon. I suppose we did some more elaborate training round the Wiltshire Downs -I suppose there must have been other units there but my most vivid memory was being part of a ‘fatigue’, that is a working party, sent to clear up the ravages of a party the night before in the Officers Mess. This was a large marquee, part of which was in shreds due, we were told, to the more boisterous types sliding from top to bottom wearing spurs.
Certainly there was still plenty of champagne left over, so we cleared this up rapidly and effectively without any after effects that I can recall. The Royal Bucks Yeomanry was considered a pretty posh set-up and numbered amongst its officers the Hon. Michael Astor, a Cavendish, a Rothschild all under the command of a Major Clifton-Browne.
Although recurrent ‘crises’ and fears of Hitler’s intentions kept cropping up, I don’t think Peter and I and our other friends in the Territorials ever seriously thought that we might actually be about to go to war and doing all this for real. It all seemed like a bit of amateur British fun and to say that 394 Battery was trained, fully equipped and ready would have been a rather sick joke.
So we dispersed from camp and in August I went on holiday with my parents to Blue Anchor, a little seaside resort near Minehead in Somerset. Once more, life in the hotel lounge centred round the 9 o’clock News and on 1st September 1939 came the news of Hitler’s impending invasion of Poland.
Chamberlain sent an ultimatum that unless Adolf called the whole thing off, we would give our support to the Poles, in theory if not in practice,but anyway be at war with Germany.
Everyone knew by now that Hitler’s past promises were a sham and it was almost with a sense of relief that holidaymakers, the Angells included, headed for home. And there on the mat was a buff envelope for me ordering me to report for duty at another offshoot of the Bucks Yeomanry at Chalfont St Peter as the battery had been ‘mobilised’. I suppose I threw some things into a suitcase but in fact once there was told to go to Taplow on Sunday 3 September and it was this day that Chamberlain broadcast that, having heard nothing from Hitler, we were therefore at war with Germany. Only moments later on this sunny morning, the air raid syren sounded and I suppose there were masses of people who, like me, thought that at the next moment the sky would be black with bombers raining down explosives on us all.
A short time later however the ‘All Clear’ sounded but what were to become such familiar sounds in the future, the warning wail and the more optimistic single long note, acted as a kind of fanfare with coda to remind us that war had really begun and for us, mostly late teenagers, it was the start of a future with a completelY unknown outcome as to both time and place.
One thing is certain in the Services( although we didn’t realise it at the time) and that is that one has little or no control over one’s own destiny: one goes where one’s ordered to go and for how long is completely dependent on the state of affairs either local or global. Complete ignorance, for most of the time, of how one’s own little piece featured in the jig-saw led more often than not to suffering the well known Service phrase – SNAFU -Situation Normal All Fucked Up! All of which serves to illustrate that my experiences for the next 6% years were all down to the luck of the draw.
So 394 Battery spent a few days at Taplow sorting out equipment, guns and transport with no hint to humble gunners as to where we were heading. We did however one afternoon report to the country estate of our Honorary Colonel, Lady Astor, who delivered a stirring speech which included allusions to the evils of drink and loose women of which, I’m afraid to say, we were both uncomprehending and ignorant. Lodging at her handsome house (Cliveden was the real family seat a few miles up the road) were some Jewish refugee boys and girls from Germany and Austria. One boy proudly showed me his treasured signed sheet music of “Vienna City of my Dreams”.
I wonder if he kept it through the war and ever returned to the City of his dreams.
But now it was time to move the Battery to what we later discovered was the pre-arranged mobilisation area for many local Territorial Army units prior to embarking with the British Expeditionary Force to France where the Germans had already begun to calll everyone’s bluff by advancing on everY conceivable front in Europe. To us it meant moving into Bradfords Farm just outside Newbury in Berkshire. The farm continued to operate with cows, chickens, tractors and bales of straw but our sleeping quarters were quite cosy above the cowshed and the guns, transport, eating and sanitary arrangements were scattered round about in various barns and surrounding fields.
The battery boasted quite a good jazz band and on one of my visits home for 24 hours leave, I had been persuaded to bring back my rather battered trombone which I’d learnt to play in the OTC band at Marlborough.
The repertoire there had largely been stirring marches like “Colonal Bogey” so it was a novelty trying to cope with classic jazz numbers like “Sweet Sue” but I guess the audience of fellow gunners wasn’t too critical. Visits home, thanks to scrounging a lift in Peter Jude’s car which he’d managed somehow to bring along and find a spare barn to park in, seemed to be fairly regularly achieved and as the Autumn was approaching, we were encouraged to bring back to the farm a ‘civvy’ overcoat for which we were paid an extra allowance of 2/6d a week until the Army issue ones appeared.
The evenings when we were not required for guard or other duties, we drove into Newbury where the two big treats were a bath at the posh hotel for which we paid 6d followed by Steak and chips for 2/6d at the more popular Bacon Arms next door. We used to meet gunners from an even posher battery than ours – The Royal Berks Yeomanry, stationed on Newbury Racecourse whose officers had bought everybody white hunting mackintoshes as they, like us, were without the official issue clothing as yet.
In November, the news came that 394 Battery was bound for France but at the same time it was announced that all those under the age of 19 were considered too young to be thrown into battle. I suppose there were still people lurking at the War Office with memories of World War I where, by the end, men of virtually any age from 16 year old youths upward ere being scooped up for slaughter. And so a group title for those of us under 19 already in the army was coined – ‘Immatures’. We were thoroughly insulted by the name as age in the Services never seemed to feature – you were all the same apart from a few veterans perhaps rising 40. We also considered ourselves far from immature with our boisterous beer swilling and thoroughly obnoxious behaviour hiding behind a screen of sympathy from the civilian population who, we imagined, thought of us as heroes who had responded to the call of duty!
So ‘home defence’ was our allotted role and what this meant was that we fresh faced lads – Alan Gunn, a year younger than his brother John who stayed with the Royal Bucks Yeomanry, Ken Lewis, Norman East and a few others whose names I forget, were dumped among some other ‘immatures’ and some rather smart newly trained soldiers from the first group of British conscripts called up just before the war started. Our destination was Biggin Hill, an old but extensive RAF airfield in Kent which was to feature frequently and tragically in the Battle of Britain. 272 anti-aircraft Battery was deployed round the perimeter but for the moment we were condemned to going back to Square One and were put through very vigorous basic training and in army terms that always means marching, polishing brass, laying out blankets and kit in the barrack room in a meticulous pre-ordained pattern, all under the eagle eye of a particularly obnoxious Sergeant- Major.
The only pleasurable highlights of this period I remember were a concert in a vast hangar with one of the top bands of the day – Harry Roy, and a few evening visits to nearby Bromley for beer, egg and chips and the local Odeon.
After a while we were considered sufficiently ‘disciplined’ to join one of the troops of anti-aircraft guns defending the airfield. The guns were 3″, relics of the first war which, we were told, had been retrieved from the Imperial War Museum. Certainly their shells could only reach limited height which we later discovered made them completely useless for coping with high flying German bombers. But our immediate concern was the extremely primitive conditions on the gun site. We slept in wooden huts on straw filled mattresses or paliasses, there was a small mess hut and cookhouse plus the sandbagged gun emplacements all located at the end of a very muddy lane. We got to know every rut and puddle in that lane because the most frequent chore was carrying old fashioned two gallon cans, painted white to distinguish them from petrol cans, and filling them with water from a tap at least a quarter of a mile from the gun site. Carrying two full cans with sharp metal handles along a muddy track night and day in increasingly dour autumnal weather led to plenty of moaning especially as we thought that the members of D Troop were making us immatures bear the brunt of this chore.
The cook’s name was Ozzie and we were told he’d been a chimney sweep in civilian life. He certainly still looked the part with his blackened face and hands but maybe the primitive wood and coal stove didn’t help. One thing for sure, I witnessed him blowing his nose with his hand and then immediately move to dishing out plum duff without resorting to a spoon. But in spite of all this rather drab life and location, there was still no sign of any enemy aircraft over Biggin Hill and when I went home to Gerrards Cross for 48 hours leave, my mother and father remarked how healthy I looked!
From Biggin Hill the order came one day that we were moving, whether taking over someone elses guns or packing up our own, I don’t remember. At any rate, we landed up on top of the cliffs overlooking the English Channel near Newhaven.
This was fairly familiar territory for me as I’d been at prep school in Seaford between the ages of 7 and 13 and had suffered many a windswept walk in corduroy shorts on the Sussex Downs in Winter. But it was nothing compared to what we were to endure from the cold of December 1939 and January 1940. There was one famous night when I was on guard at the gun site – two hours on and four hours off- the only shelter being a rather ramshackle wooden sentry box. The rain came down and immediately froze, covering the surrounding gorse with a half inch coating of ice. Worse still, it settled on my steel helmet and great coat and did the same.
However our billet was the conservatory of a bungalow a few hundred yards up a rough track in Peacehaven. Peacehaven had a rather dreadful reputation as a development of jerry-built semi-prefab bungalows built as ‘homes for heroes’ after World War 1 but compared to Army huts, it was really quite cosy for us ‘immature’ young gunners. The bungalow was still occupied by a Mrs Evans who was extremely hospitable to us, cooking up her own precious dried egg to add to fried bread to make a tasty evening snack sometimes. I hope we managed to scrounge the odd portion from our own rations from the filthy Ozie who had set up his cookhouse somewhere near the Troop Office where Lieut.Curry had installed himself in the Peacehaven Golf Clubhouse.
Mrs Evans was a striking woman, I suppose in her early thirties and had a rather theatrical bent extending to her sometimes asking us to join her round the piano for a sing-song. Mr Evans was a shadowy figure, a good deal older, it seemed to us and was, we guessed, on some kind of night work that kept him out of the forces although at this stage of the war, call up had only reached men in their twenties. At any rate, Mrs Evans’ kind heart began to extend to the Bombardier in charge of our detachment, one Bombardier Eves, who used to creep back after our official ‘lights out’ to enjoy extended and often rather noisy hospitality in Mrs Evans’ bedroom. Some time later, it was said that Mrs Evans produced a child and one assumed that the Bombardier was responsible.
Newhaven was an old established port which I remember chiefly as the starting point for pre-war holidays to France via the ferry to Dieppe. It was now a target for the odd German bomber and our guns on the cliff were there to defend it. But these old 3″ guns were of limited range and the few occasions when we were ‘standing to’ after an enemy plane was reported in the area proved hopelessly frustrating as it was usuallY dark and the single plane certainly flying too high for us. But equally, I don’t remember any bombs being dropped either. So we sat and watched and trained and tried as best we could to protect ourselves with balaclavas and mittens from the record-breaking cold of this Winter.
The greatest pleasure was a weekly trip to the Municipal baths in Brighton where the fittings were all huge brass affairs controlled from a central point by some aged retainer. The routine was to buy a bath cube for 1d and install oneself in one of the cubicles which already had the enormous bath filled. AT intervals, one could declaim in potentate style, “more hot number seven” and magically, a fantastic jet of steaming water would gush forth! We emerged feeling warm and content and if we were lucky enough to have got an evening off as well, would repair to Sherry’s, the local vast bar and dance hall. Whisky Mac was a drink I was introduced to as insulation against the cold and I certainly remember enjoying several on a balcony listening to a big band playing “In the mood” whilst the revolving light globe scattered its kaleidoscopic patterns on the seething dancers below. We were all still far t0o shy to seek out a partner although I’m sure there must have been plenty of Brighton girls who would have welcomed a spot of jitter bug with a soldier however immature.
Soon the order came for 272 Battery to move once more and so our troop set off with guns for somewhere much nearer home as far as many of us ‘immatures’ were concerned for our destination was Dorney Common near Windsor which, in turn, was quite close to Taplow the home of the Royal Bucks Yeomanry fdrm whom we’d been transferred and, better still, not far from Gerrards Cross and therefore the chance of some home leave. It was not quite so close to home for the bulk of the ‘lads’ form 272 Battery which was also a Territorial outfit but from North London near Alexandra Palace and, as far as I could gather, consisted of a great many people who worked for the local Gas Board. There were one or two from the birthplace of television in the UK – the BBC’s Ally Pally and one of the officers with whom I had contact after the war was a Lieutenant Andrew Miller – Jones who subsequently became one of the first Heads of Training at the BBC.
Dorney Common is flat and open with views of Windsor Castle on the horizon and, in the other direction, close to the Slough Trading Estate. I suppose were there to defend these two potential targets for enemy bombers. My chief recollection however was having to build sandbagged gun emplacements – a slow and laborious process consisting of first shovelling in sand whilst someone else held the bag, tying up the neck securely and then laying the bags like a line of bricks, except that one had two lines of long bags side by side and then a line of transverse bags in the next row. We were therefore delighted when a contingent of boys from Eton in their distinctive pinkish coloured OTC uniforms arrived to lend a hand.
I suppose we all read the papers but portable radios were not much in evidence and so I don’t recall getting particularly downhearted by the increasingly bad news from Europe. The German blitzkrieg had thundered through Holland, Belgium and in France, bombing and blasting their way in a style virtually unknown to anybody apart from those few worthies from Britain who’d witnessed it in the Spanish civil war. The Royal Bucks Yeomanry was in the thick of it and, although I didn’t hear about it until much later, if I’d been just a year older, I’d have spent the entire war in German prison camp as my troop had apparently taken a wrong turning somewhere in France and were captured virtually to a man.
However, one sunny day when sandbagging was still barely complete, news came that the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force, the BEF, were evacuating en masse through Dunkirk together with remnants of Dutch, Belgian and French forces and anybody else who could make it to the famous armada of little ships who crossed the Channel. This really brought us up short as it began to dawn on us in our blinkered little world of Home Defence that our ‘immature’ status wouldn’t mean much as we and everybody in Britain became the front line and everyone’s thoughts turned to, not if, but when Hitler would invade.
Maybe this mild panic accounts for the fact that my memory of the next few months is somewhat confused but perhaps that went for the powers that be as well for we found ourselves moving more frequently as I suppose the tactical defence of London was planned and replanned. In any case we landed up next in Richmond Park and took over a more up to date set of 3.7″ Anti Aircraft guns which meant more training in how to operate them, although the control of them used the same system as the old 3″ guns.
The skill of Anti Aircraft gunnery is quite different to Field artillery as the target is moving at a great speed and the nearer it is to you, the faster it seems to be going. One simple method of getting on to the target is to have a wire sight on the gun and, rather like clay pigeon shooting, aim off and by skill and experience hope to hit the target.
But we had a much more sophisticated system consisting of a height finder operated by two people peering into a magnifier each end of a tube following the aircraft visually and feeding in the information to work out trigonometrically the height which was then shouted and later fed into the next box of tricks, a predictor. This was my job, one of the predictor operators who followed the aircraft and, magically, provided you kept the plane in the centre of your sight, the predictor worked out and transmitted electrically to the guns the amount of aim off required. Of course, there were two factors involved, the height and speed or apparent speed of the target, for, as I said, this depends on how close the plane is to you and its direction of flight.
But there was another factor with which no predictor could cope and that was a sudden change of direction of the target which, as any wartime flyer will tell you, is evasive action taken as rapidly and dramatically as possible when the flak which, from the German, became the universal word for anti-aircraft fire, begins to fly. than The Richmond Park gun site was just by the Roehampton Gate entrance and was luxurious in that accommodation was in newly built wooden huts built to a standard layout called a spider but whether it was shaped like the insect or its web I never discovered.
I often pass the spot with my eldest son Nick and his family but no single trace remains of what was home for me and a few score others for quite a few weeks in the Summer of 1940. We never fired a shot in anger there for the Battle of Britain had not begun and we found ourselves on the move again and about this time in order to make sure that we were reasonably competent to get somewhere near a target we went off to Towyn in North Wales. Scattered round the coasts were various locations on the edge of the sea called firing camps. Here some luckless pilot flew up and down in a straight line towing a sleeve which looked like a long airport windsock.
Under strictly controlled supervision from a safety officer when the sleeve came opposite the guns the order came to ‘Fire!’ and we duly blasted off sometimes with a modicum of success piercing a hole in the sleeve and giving the pilot of the towing aircraft a nasty jolt. I suppose it was worth it and, later on, radio controlled model aircraft were used which were certainly more realistic behaving like the real thing but rather a costly target if you were successful. And all the time firing could only happen pointing out to sea as, at that time the local population had had no experience of the blitz when enemy aircraft were falling all over the place and anti-aircraft guns were blazing away in every direction.
After firing camp which made quite an entertaining diversion we moved back to Slough or rather a field in a village just outside called Hedsor and were back on our old 3″ guns again. Our stay was short however and our next move was a highly dramatic one which resulted in my getting involved more action against the enemy than I encountered for the rest of the war. But, as I said earlier, it was all just the luck of the draw.
The straw we drew was to take over the old 3″ gunS once more but located this time on the seafront overlooking the harbour at Dover. This was a mere 18 miles from the French coast and on a clear day, of which there were plenty that August of 1940, you could see trains puffing up and down and the occasional spotter aircraft circling Cap Gris Nez which we now knew was peppered with Germans. It was a curious feeling knowing that ‘the enemy was there with only the Channel between us and very soon we began to have frequent reminders of this.
The German army had installed coastal guns and started regular but unpredictable shelling on to Dover and its environs. This meant that we had an extra task as well as the duty lookout scanning the skies for aircraft and this was watching the coast for a flash of a gun. The drill was then to count at one second intervals up to, I think, 13 and then everybody ducked behind the sandbagged emplacement.
Ammunition for our guns was stored in lockers built into the sandbagging so a hit would have been very nasty indeed but the nearest shell that landed was on the Municipal baths about 50 yards behind us. And this was the cue for us to move to another site on top of the White Cliffs. But this was a few weeks off and meanwhile, we had plenty of other excitement to contend with round the harbour.
The Battle of Britain, though we didn’t realise it, was now beginning and our first indication was getting reports and soon seeing formation after formation of neatly lined up bombers which we realised from our Aircraft Recognition lectures were Dornier 17s or Heinkel 111s, all escorted by swarms of Messerschmitt 109 fighters twisting and turning like so many sheep dogs minding their flock as they moved steadily onward towards and over the coast.
The reports we received from radar and the Observer Corps sounded unreal – “Enemy formation – 50 plus – 11 o’clock South West – proceeding North East”. I suppose it is true to say that nobody in England had ever seen so many planes flying in formation like this and, to Anti-aircraft gunners, they ought to have presented the perfect target. But they were way out of range for our poor old 3″ guns so all that we could do was watch and gasp and wonder where they were heading.
It was really only after the war and after reading Norman Gelb’s graphic book about the Battle of Britain “Scramble” that I got things in context. Those first daylight raids were intended to knock out all the fighter airfields (and that included Biggin Hill) and as Hitler hoped, the Royal Air Force as well, thus softening us up for the seaborne invasion codenamed “Sealion”. But as everyone knows these plans were thwarted by the Hurricanes and Spitfires of the RAF who scattered so many 109s and downed or deflected so many bombers. But anti-aircraft played its part too and the 3.7″ and newly introduced 4.5″ guns scored quite a few hits when our fighters were busily occupied elsewhere.
One of the ways of preventing low level attacks by aircraft was by flying Barrage Balloons whose steel cable holding them aloft was judged to be sufficient deterrent for fighter or dive bomber pilots. It was the latter with their Junkers 87s which emitted a terrifying screaming noise as they went into a dive before unleashing their bombs at low level and who then swooped up and away. But first the balloons had to be disposed of. We had about a score of them flying above and around Dover harbour and it became a regular morning and evening performance for Ju 87s or Me 109s sometimes on their way home from escorting bombers to peel off and give a quick blast of machine gun fire on the balloons which went up in a most satisfyingly large burst of flame.
Now our 3″ guns came into their own and so did every other weapon on board Merchant ships in the harbour, Lewis guns manned also by us and by nearby infantry and even, on occasions, the trusty old Lee Enfield rifle, standard army issue but still in such short supply that we didn’t even have one each. For about 30 seconds all hell was let loose with dive bombers and fighters roaring in all directions, barrage balloons blazing and the combined cacophony of all Dover’s defences letting fly in one almighty barrage. We registered one or two hits but with so many guns firing it was difficult to claim an ‘exclusive’. The Barrage balloons were duly replaced and very often we had a second visit and the same thing happened all over again. Whether Dover harbour extensive damage I’m not sure although certainly our gun site was unscathed. Perhaps it was just a bit of a sideline attempt at demoralization by the German air force. After a few of these raids, we started to treat it as a kind of game and I began to wonder whether the Germans were doing likewise.
The talk of imminent invasion by the Germans was always uppermost in our minds at this time and so a more meticulous watch was kept from our gunsite where we were virtually on ‘stand to’ for 24 hours. This meant that we had to operate a shift system for the gun crew and on our 24 hours off, we slept in the air raid shelters built into the actual White Cliffs.
One night in late September, I think it was, we were roused from sleep in the early hours and the story soon spread that this was it – the invasion had started. We scrambled into our uniforms, pulled on our webbing and dashed to the gun site. There were not enough rifles for us to have one apiece so those without, of which I was one, were left staring rather helplessly into the darkness with the moon glinting on the water in the harbour and the channel beyond, wondering how soon it would be before an armada of craft began approaching, with perhaps a prelude of shelling and air raids. But half an hour to an hour passed and nothing appeared so we were ‘stood down’. I suppose, in retrospect, this was the most frightening moment of the war for me, partly because we felt so hopelessly unprepared and exposed; certainly, our particular position could not have been more in the front line to greet any invaders. There were stories years later of German rehearsals that night, of probing raids further along the coast, even of a full scale invasion thwarted by the RAF dropping oil on the sea and setting light to it but on our particular site overlooking Dover harbour, we were aware of none of these things.
On the following days, the shelling and the air raids carried on and the Municipal swimming baths just behind us got a direct hit which was the cue for us to pull out and install ourselves in, what seemed to me, a much more exposed position in a gun site on top of the White Cliffs. The German fighters also seemed to find us an obvious target for we had one or two quite nasty low level attacks when I remember on one occasion lying flat and keeping my fingers well and truly crossed.
One other unpleasant experience at this time was being despatched to mount guard on a dummy gun site further up the coast but also pretty exposed on the cliff top. This was a decoy whilst larger coastal guns were being installed which had the range to shell German positions in France, the previous 4.7″ Naval guns only being able to drop their shells rather pathetically in mid-channel. Our orders were to make ourselves look as conspicuous as possible and generally parade up and down these wooden structures (which bore scant resemblance to guns) with the deliberate aim of attracting enemy air raids. None of us considered this to be within the bounds of duty and so we carried out our task as furtively as we could and I’m glad to say no enemy aircraft came near us!
For me soon after this, there came what turned out to be a most amazing call to see Lieut. Curry in the Troop office. “Angell”, he said, “it appears that because you’ve got School Certificate and were in the OTC and passed Certificate A at school, you are eligible to apply for a commission. But some daft buggers at the War Office think that young officers are not educated enough and need to go to University for a while. Your name’s down here but it would mean your being demobilised and although the fees and accommodation would be paid, you’d have no other money -How about it?”. Leave the army in the middle of a war – the whole idea seemed preposterous and beyond my wildest dreams. My parents marvellously agreed to provide pocket money and so a few weeks later after a short stop in Harrogate to sort out papers, I found myself bound for Aberdeen University and what proved to be an extremely happy six months, albeit through a raw Scottish winter.
First and foremost, I was a civilian again wearing my own sports jacket and grey flannels, the usual gear for 18 year olds at that time. Secondly, I was lucky enough to be put up in the substantial granite home in Queens Road of Lady Alexander the widow of the former Lord Provost of Aberdeen.
I had a large pleasant room of my own elegantly furnished and, next door, one other lodger, a fresh faced lad straight from school, Mice Harding. Lady A, as we came to call her, had two children, Charlotte who was I suppose 17 and Gavin, 16 and still away at boarding school. She also had a shiny Wolseley saloon which, amazingly, I was allowed to drive.
Finally, there were two neat little maids who served the evening meals and later on at about 9.30pm wheeled in a trolley complete with silver teapot and fruit cake. Lady A who was an Oxford graduate was extremely kind and hospitable to her twO ‘cadets’ as we were called to differentiate us from normal undergraduates but, more than that, the war did not as yet appear to have affected Aberdeen and in particular, I remember there were still substantial supplies of chocolate biscuits! Aberdeen also seemed to me to be stuck in some charming time warp and it was still the custom for people asked to dinner to bring their music and they were expected to perform later in the evening. I provided a novelty by sending for my trombone once more and, accompanied by Charlotte on the piano used to give rather mournful renderings of “Bless this House” or “On Wings of Song”, there not being a great deal in the way of sheet music for solo trombone and piano. I did have one or two novelty numbers like “The Joker” or “The Jockey” which had a lot of slurping up and down the slide which I used to do sometimes as an encore. But it was not all Victorian ballads and some undergraduates who came to dinner or whose homes we visited were outstanding jazz pianists as well.
The work was a sort of potted first year Science degree course, much of it way beyond me with Calculus and so on but we did also have Surveying which we started from scratch and I enjoyed this a lot, especially when we used to take the tram to its terminus and set up chains and theodolites ‘in the field’. But for the most part, it was the social life that was so fantastic to me so recently a humble gunner with guard and cookhouse duty, sleeping in a variety of places with scratchy army blankets, polishing boots and brass and now luxuriously installed amongst the extremely hospitable and charming people of Aberdeen. I soon developed quite a ‘pash’ for one of Charlotte’s friends, Sheena Irvine who lived in a crumbling castle some miles out of the city at John Straloch.
One snowy December Sunday, I persuaded Mike and another ex-army cadet, Alan Fisher, to accompany me walking all the way to Sheena ‘s home where we were welcomed to tea by her astonished parents. We then had to return, trudging the same five miles back through the snow but I don’t remember Mike and Alan holding it against me! yor Through Sheena and Charlotte, I was introduced to the local Amateur Dramatic Group who were putting on Barrie’s “The Admirable Crichton” in the Student Union Hall at Kings College.I was cast as ‘The Hon.Ernest Woolley’, an upper class twit with a penchant for epigrams. I remember Crichton the butler was played magnificently by a good solid Aberdonian whilst ‘The Countess of Brocklehurst” was obviously type cast with a formidable local aristocrat of ‘The Town’. In fact, we were invited to attend various ‘Town and County’ Balls at the City Hall and I became quite proficient at “The Dashing White Sergeant”, “Strip the Willow” and eightsome reels, even being persuaded to don kilt on one occasion! I also developed a taste for Glenfiddich Malt Whiskey; perhaps it was this or merely that I was by now 19 but there<page break>
just seemed to be a wealth of wonderful girls around with the general social whirl and, very soon, Sheena was displaced by Helen Ferguson who laboriously and gallantly wrote out the sheet music for a song that Alan Fisher and I had written and composed for a student revue called “Eyes Right”. It was a sentimental ditty called “Footlight Fantasy” about a fan waiting outside the stage door, hoping to get a glimpse of the ‘Star’. Neither of us knew anything about music but merely wrote the tune and lyrics but one of Helen’s talented friends orchestrated it marvellously and I still have the sheet music somewhere. Helen by now had joined the WAAFS and introduced me to Betty Watt who became my newest girlfriend; they were all local girls who at that time didn’t seem to be posted away from home so what with the dramatic society, the student revues and the general friendliness of everybody, the work and even parades with the University OTC where we cadets who’d been in the army, showed off most dreadfully, both seemed a mere accompaniment to the never ending social life. However, we did eventually sit exams and I was told that if I wished to return to Aberdeen after the war I would be excused the first year BSc course.
And so in the early Spring of 1941, I took the luxurious Aberdonian overnight sleeper to Kings Cross for the last time and, after a couple of weeks leave at home, was called up for the second time in the war and reported to rather miserable World War 1 barracks at Bordon. Here we were treated as raw recruits and shouted at and abused by Sergeant Majors on the square and made to do gun drill on ancient 13 pounder field guns similar to the ceremonial ones still used for Royal Salutes in the park by the Royal Horse Artillery. We were still cadets but earmarked for officer training and at Bordon we met some of our fellow undergraduate/cadets and discovered that we were all destined for either the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers or the Royal Signals and that Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Durham were among other Universities who’d had to cope with equally independent and at times bloody minded cadets.
After a few weeks, the call to OCTU came. These initials stand for Officer Cadet Training Unit and my posting was to Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery at Shrivenham. The guns in this case were the Swedish Bofors 40mm and were used at this stage of the war for airfield defence against low flying aircraft. They were on four wheels and towed by a specially designed truck in which the gun crew rode and which carried the ammunition as well. On arrival at the allotted site, the gunners scrambled out, unhitched the gun and with a series of complicated manoeuvres got it level, stable, off its wheels and ready for action. This was a variation of gun drill common to all guns, field, anti-aircraft or naval the 40mm ones were smaller and more mobile than most so that a highly competitive element crept in between the crews rather like the Naval gun display at the Royal Tournament.
Later in the war, the 40mm Bofors became more mobile still and was mounted on its own vehicle and used as an Anti-Tank gun in support of the infantry right up at the sharp end but I’m glad to say I escaped being with it in that role.
For the moment, the intricacies of both gun drill,the mechanics of the Bofors and the technique for firing at aircraft with these guns were completely new to me and so, once more, I had to start from scratch. It seemed that all us cadets had to start from scratch as well with all the square bashing, polishing and cleaning of kit and barrack room. The only thing that distinguished us from raw recruits was that we wore white bands round our forage caps and were addressed by NCOS right up to the Regimental Sergeant Major as “Gentlemen” but the way that word was spat out was in the most witheringly sarcastic tone possible.
The RSM was really a stock character and put us through our paces to ensure that our marching, wheeling and countermarching reached and even exceeded Guards standard. “Don’t look down – if there’s anything there, I’d have had it!” was one of his favourite expressions. The barracks were in the latest Army architect designed brick built style with a main building supporting a clock tower. The sleeping accommodation was in linoleum covered dormitories and each room had its own floor polisher or ‘bumper’, a broom, scrubbing brush and bucket. Kit had to be laid out on the beds in impeccable design, lined up precisely and with blankets folded so as to show no outside edge, a laboriously learned method which must date back years but which, like riding a bicycle, one never forgets.
But most of all it was those cleaning utensil the buckets had to be burnished until they sparkled and the handles of the bumpers and brooms scraped with a razor blade to make them look virginal after use. The polishing of the rooms and passages was, of course, a lengthy ritual too and why everybody didn’t keep measuring their lengths, I don’t know.
Quite what all this had to do with officer training, I’m also not sure and indeed the technical training was of rather a cursory standard as well but we survived and the local country round Lechlade was pleasant and the pubs, when beer was available, for a shortage had begun to creep in, were welcoming. I had acquired a 1927 Austin 7 fabric saloon for £5 and it was a very basic motor car. The starter had packed up and the crank on the starting handle was worn but if I was on my own, it was so light that it could be pushed with the left hand depressing the clutch, letting it in when the engine fired, slipping the gear into neutral with the other hand and then quickly pulling on the handbrake, more or less simultaneously jumping in and getting ones foot on the accelerator to keep it running! Petrol even for this car’s minute tank was hard to come by and I came to a strictly unauthorised arrangement with a transport sergeant that he could borrow the car provided he left the tank full when it was returned. Even so, there was one occasion when I had to resort to the emergency tin of lighter fuel to get back to barracks. When I left OCTU, I sold the car for £3.10s.
Shrivenham was only a village but it had sprouted a small colony of military tailors – Moss Bros, Alkit and so on to cater for the needs of the ‘young gentlemen’ when they were eventually commissioned. I had become friendly with Pat Barry whose father was a brigadier in the regular Royal Artillery and he strongly recommended his tailor from Woolwich, ‘The Shop and the headquarters of the RA. Fultons did not have a permanent place at Shrivenham so Mr Fulton came down by train and Pat and I had fittings for our service dress and great coat in the local pub.
I don’t exactly remember at what stage we were told we had passed the course and had therefore got our commission but neither do I remember anyone failing; perhaps by mid 1941, the army was getting more desperate. Certainly our group had a farewell party with our particular instructor, Capt Rush and soon after must have donned our spanking new tailor made uniforms with hand made shoes and boots and one single gleaming pip on the shoulder signifying we were second lieutenants. My father still had his Sam Browne belt from World War 1 which he passed to me; the leather had a deep dark brown shine from years of polishing which made me the envy of my mates with their brand new belts still matte.
I learned that I had been posted to 224 Training Regiment at Aberystwyth in North Wales. There’s one thing about having to teach, you have to get down to learning about the subject yourself pretty rapidly and I soon realised the gaps in the training at Shrivenham. However I also soon learned the old trick that if you’re asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, the standard reply is, “I’m not going to answer that at the moment as it forms part of a later lecture”.
We were housed in the Marine Hotel, quite a comfortable seaside establishment on the sea front. The gun park where the trainees carried out their gun drill was in the Station car park and lectures took place in an assortment of Welsh Baptist chapels in the town. This meant quite a bit of walking between locations but there were pleasant little cafes where we used to stop off for coffee and a doughnut.
The officers mess meals were of a very high standard too as the Catering Officer had been the manager of Oddeninos before the war. The units coming for training were infantry regiments who had been designated to convert to light anti-aircraft artillery and there was a certain amount of resentment from some who thought they were losing their proud tradition and names like “The Prince of Wales’ Own” to be just lumped together as Royal Artillery. Equally, those in the RA considered these infantry people ought to feel honoured to have joined such an old establishes and elite body as the Royal Regiment of Artillery! Anyway it was our job to turn everybody into gunners and I found that I took very happily to the role of instructor.
London University had been evacuated to the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth and 224 Regiment formed a rugger team which used to play most Saturdays against University and local teams and which meant that I got fitter than I’d been for a long time. There was a brand new theatre cum concert hall near the pier and I put on a show there backed by the local jazz band. There was also a cinema called the Coliseum which must have originally been a theatre as it still had plenty of gilt and plush with a circle, upper circle and balcony all presided over by a magnificent lady manageress. So it was with some sadness that I learned that the conversion of infantry to artillery was coming to an end and I was posted to a light anti-aircraft battery at Sandwich near Rye. My stay there was short however as the call came to report to Woolwich, the headquarters of the Royal Artillery in preparation for being posted overseas.
I had never been to ‘The Shop’ as the RA Headquarters was known to generations of regular Artillery officers. It certainly still retained much of its traditional splendour and the officers mess was elegant in the extreme with the Royal Artillery string orchestra performing from the balcony every evening during dinner. The silver candlesticks gleamed and I was perturbed to find that all the cutlery was engraved with my initials – RMA but in this instance standing for Royal Military Academy!
We were kept occupied in rather a desultory fashion with a bit of map reading and so on but there were plenty of opportunities to slip away to London, an easy journey by train andI certainly remember at least one visit to the Windmill theatre which to the end of the war continued to proclaim “We never closed” and where girls appeared on stage starkers provided they didn’t move. The show therefore consisted of a series of ‘tableaux’ in various exotic settings with the girls draped about in statue like poses.
This was interspersed with stand up comics and other music hall acts and some very famous names like Jimmy Edwards started here. It was quite a job for them to get much sympathy from the audience that consisted largely of mysterious looking gents in mackintoshes who, it was said, came in when the doors opened in the morning and stayed to see the show round until closing time. This accounted for a slide which flashed up at each change over saying “Gentlemen are requested not to climb over the seats” for the aim was to get as close to the front as possible to gawp at the posing nudes!
The more adventurous of our draft at Woolwich returned there by the 5am milk train which arrived just in time to make the first parade of the morning; I think I travelled once this way after going home to Gerrards Cross for the day. The reason for a draft of officers being assembled at Woolwich with no unit of NCOS and Other Ranks was at this time a mystery to us and we were complete strangers to one another when we first arrived. The permanent staff Major who seemed to be in charge of us raised excitement further by saying after a week or two, “Gentlemen, things is getting eminent (sic), if you’re thinking of going away for the week-end, don’t do it” which was the encoded signal to say that we should shortly be setting off for an unknown destination overseas.
Eventually the day arrived and we were told to pack up and finally this contingent of officers only – majors, captains, lieutenants and second lieutenants fell in and marched formally out through the arch at the edge of the parade ground headed by the Royal Artillery band. And what did they play? The very familiar march by Kenneth Alford “Colonel Bogey”. When it came to the appropriate part, inevitably the word “Bollocks” came through loud and clear from Officer Draft KGW bound for Woolwich station and thence by troop train which meandered round London by some tortuous route eventually to arrive late that night at Gourock the tip of the port of Greenock in Scotland.
Here we boarded a dimly lit giant ocean liner, the Louis Pasteur. The Pasteur had just been completed as the pride of the French Line fleet with one gigantic funnel as opposed to her Cunard rival Queen Elizabeth’s two. She had managed to escape from Cherbourg when France fell and was now operated by Cunard having been painted grey and converted to carry many thousand troops.
We were all pretty tired by the train journey and I was barely conscious of the ship pulling away sometime that night and it was not until the next morning that we looked out of the porthole to see that we were part of a vast convoy of other troopships and merchantmen escorted by a Naval cruiser and several destroyers. In fact, we heard later that this particular convoy departing in early 1942 was one of the largest ever assembled but still, as far as we were concerned, bound for an unknown destination.
We were lucky as a draft of officers that we had single cabins in which two rows of four tier bunks had been fitted.
But these cramped conditions were as nothing compared to the hammocks in the bowels of the ship which were the lot of other ranks. And the officers dining room remained almost exactly as first class passengers would have experienced it, apart from filling it with more tables and having extra sittings but still resplendent with white linen tablecloths and uniformed stewards.
Shipboard life fell into a routine of boat drill to which we all paid very full attention for the packs of German U boats searching for shipping were becoming more daring each month.
But we felt as well protected as it was possible to be and it was a relief each morning to see our escorts still there and the full complement of other ships keeping the same positions. P.T. and even deck games passed the time and giant bingo sessions with the calls of “Clickety click”, “Legs 11″,”7 and 6, Bed and breakfast” or alternatively, “7 and 6 Was she worth it?” coming over the loudspeakers. Due to the number of troops on board who participated at 6d a card, the prizes were substantial but I was never lucky enough to be the first to shout “House” for the game was called Housey, Housey then and not Bingo.
One morning we woke to find we were anchored with the other ships in a vast estuary lined with tropical trees with the climate to match; here arrangements were made for mail to be collected and posted. I had agreed with my parents that any communication would contain a simple code and that if they spotted an unusual sentence, they should take the first letter of each word and that would đisclose my location. All the mail was subject to censorship and I should think any alert checker would have tumbled my ruse but nevertheless Mother and Father discovered from my card that we had reached Freetown in West Africa.
The convoy reassembled after a day or two but I’m afraid I can’t remember the number of days we spent on the next leg. We heard that, in order to confuse the U boats, we had sailed almost over to South America before crossing back to what proved to be our interim destination – the port of Durban. This was my first experience of anywhere semi-tropical and Durban was certainly a most attractive introduction. We were billetted on the racecourse and slept in makeshift but quite comfortable accommodation in the grandstand. Every day messages would cOme over the tannoy “If any officer would like to go out for a meal, Mr and Mrs so and so are at the gate and would be pleased to invite them”. What greater hospitality could one want and we were entertained lavishly by the good people of Durban, attended local dances with their daughters at one of which I remember being introduced to the Hokey-Cokey!
The only shock for us was to find in town Apartheid in full swing with notices proclaiming “Whites only” and, on tops of buses, seats designated “Coloureds only”. As outsiders we were affronted by this and rather pointedly ignored these but, being in uniform, were not questioned. Of the local sights, my most vivid memories were of the Playhouse cinema, the first outside Los Angeles to have a roof which was studded with stars and gently moving projected clouds; the sides of the proscenium were turrets of a castle, all adding up to a most realistic illusion of being in the open air.
We also visited the Valley of a Thousand Hills and a Zulu village of mud huts where the men wore magnificent headdresses and the girls were bare chested, a novelty for us innocent youths in those days. It was said that the Zulus climbed into their American convertibles as soon as the tourists left and headed back to Durban perhaps to take up the other tourist attraction of pulling rickshaws whilst adorned with full headdress once more. Certainly their magnificent stature and physique meant that their giant strides made the rickshaws go at a fair old pelt. Finally, we also had time to go to Isipingo beach for some magnificent swimming in spite of giant and somewhat terrifying rollers.
I suppose this welcome kind of holiday break lasted about two weeks before it was down to the docks again to board His Majesty’s Troopship “Dunera”, a much smaller vessel than the giant “Louis Pasteur” but again only recently completed, specifically as a troopship for the Far East run. The more knowing of our group became more and more convinced therefore that our destination would have to be India.
The Dunera set sail on a beautiful evening and here one was lucky enough to witness what everybody in the forces who sailed from Durban must have experienced : on the end of the jetty stood the magnificent figure of a woman dressed in bright red with an equally bright red hat. Through a megaphone she sang as every ship departed and the most stirring of her songs were “Land of Hope and Glory” and, more poignantly still, “Home Sweet Home”. So there were not many dry eyes as we lined the rails and the sound and sight of this extraordinary woman faded oh so gradually in the evening light.
This time we were no convoy and only the sister ship to the Dunera, the Dilwara, was alongside us, although for a while we did have a destroyer escort. The days and nights got hotter as we headed towards the tropics and the only clue as to our whereabouts was passing an sland on the horizon which we were told was Madagascar. Finally, our destination was revealed and the famous Gateway to India appeared and we tied up in Bombay harbour and experienced for the first time the seething mobs and variously perfumed smells from exotic to stinking rotten that make up the extraordinary subcontinent of India. The shock of so much poverty, so many beggars often grotesquely deformed, must strike everyone on their first visit but we had no ti me to pause as tourists for we immediately took train to a vast tented camp at Deolali. The name of this place is familiar to every old sweat in the Indian Army for it is the location of the largest military mental hospital and, by tradition, long service in the tropics is one of the fastest routes to becoming an in-patient. The name has been bastardized over the years to become in army parlance the traditional term for being round the bend – “Doolally”.
Officers were allocated a tent each and almost the first task was to engage a civilian bearer who was the equivalent of an army batman or personal servant. I picked a nice quiet fellow called Hari and he had to be kitted out with a full bearer’s traditional uniform of white trousers and coat, a broad blue canvas belt, a turban with a blue band and rather a grand looking but unofficial badge. He was responsible for keeping all my new tropical uniform washed and pressed, boots and shoes polished and for supplying hot water night and morning for washing in the officers issue canvas bath and basin. The famous Indian dhobis or washermen were new to us with their incredible service taking away shirts and trousers, washing starching and pressing them in 24 hours or even less if one used a ‘flying dhobi’! Hari would then hold up the impeccably creased and starched trousers for me to step into and then put on and tie my shoes. To begin with, I embarrassing in the extreme found this devoted attention but it’s astonishing how quickly one came to expect it.
All this concentration on smart turnout was made extra difficult because we’d arrived in the monsoon season and the days that it rained (and it was Some rain) turned the whole camp into a quagmire. But even in the monsoon there were sunny days with the most enormous heat and humidity which we cam to learn later caused almost instant mildew everywhere and we soon learnt all the trícks like keeping boots and tin trunks clear of the ground. The other hazard which made this necessary was the plagues of white ants who would chomp their way through anything.
It was now revealed what was the purpose of this draft of Officers, now joined by British Sergeants and Bombardiers (the Artillery equivalent of corporals). Field Marshal Wavell had been verY impressed in North Africa by South Indian troops who had been in the Indian Service Corps driving trucks with supplies. Madrassis, as they were called after the area of India they came from, were not, by tradition, part of the Indian Army; however, it was decided to call for volunteers to form some Regiments of Indian anti-aircraft Artillery. And so it was that I was appointed as Troop Commander of A Troop, 12 BatterY, 3rd Indian Light Anti-aircraft Regiment of the Indian Artillery, later to be honoured with the prefix ‘Royal’.
The new recruits were now beginning to arrive and I must say that what with the monsoon and the fact that as yet they had no uniform, they looked a sorry, undernourished and bedraggled lot in their loin cloths and dhotis. They were mostly small farmers and could even have been called peasants; they’d obviously had only the most superficial medical exam for a good many proved to have epilepsy. I had not witnessed epileptic fits before and found it pretty unnerving but I also discovered that they could apparently call up a fit at will and when we toured the tents with a medical officer to find those that were afflicted, on seeing us approach, they obligingly turned on an instant demonstration. I’m afraid these poor lads were immediately sent home again, although one or two slipped through the net and stayeđ with the unit throughout the next few years and, like their fellow gunners, mostly became healthy strapping men. Although I suspect many had been quite short of food at home due to the uncertainty of the crops and extremes of climate, they soon became used to two hefty meals of curry each day.
The accompaniment was rice with one meal and chapatis for the other. The latter they didn’t approve of to begin with, wanting rice throughout, chapatis not filling them up as they felt they ought to be. “Chapatis no good Sahib, rice very good” was the cry from those that spoke some English as we toured the camp as inspecting officers. Chapattis were, of course, more nourishing and they soon began to appreciate a regular and balanced diet and, by now, equipped with khaki drill shirts, shorts, puttees and pugris, the traditional Indian headdress, began to look much better and even a bit like soldiers.
They hailed from various regions of South India and spoke a variety of languages – Tamil, Malayali and Telegu. So although we had started to learn Urdu, the accepted Indian Army language, it was decided that from henceforward the language for all should be English. So our first task was to take a daily English class with our respective Troops. A form of basic English was the order but with a slightly increased vocabulary to cope with additional military terms especially those words unique to the Artillery like ‘breach block’ or ’40mm shell’! One of my fellow Troop Commanders, Peter Richards, had been in educational publishing before the war and was able to assist the authorities in compiling and advising on this ‘Restricted English’ as it was christened.
My stint at Aberystwyth meant that I was quite used to standing up and teaching a class of 20 or so but not language teaching, especially as the only way open to us was what I believe is called ‘The direct method’ where the teacher knows nothing of the pupils language and therefore all teaching has to be in the language being taught. Not easy for simple farmer recruits new to the army but, for the most part, they were very willing pupils, often being smart enough to know that the ability to speak and understand English would probably be to their advantage after the war. The other skill they were desperate to acquire was driving which in 1942 was quite a rare accomplishment in rural India. So we struggled day after day with “My name is 242759” and other howlers and at times one began to wonder if we should ever be able finally to mold this collection of cheerful country lads into a professional outfit who might have to face going into action against the wily well trained Japanese.
Of course, inevitably there were some quite sophisticated and well educated characters as well and A Troop even boasted a minor film star from Ceylon, T.N.Mohamed, known to everyone as T.N., a Catholic Christian called Isaac, one or two Brahmins, some Muslims but mostly Hindus. In view of this mixture of language and religion, every recruit had had to give an undertaking that no traditional customs or religious rules would interfere with military training and, surprisingly, this had proved perfectly acceptable to everyone so there was no special diet, no problems with one’s shadow falling on the food and no caste distinction which still persisted amongst civilians where only the sweepers could clean out the lavatories – everybody had to take their turn at fatigues just the same as all ‘other bto ranks’ in the army.
The British Sergeants and Bombardiers that I had, one of each to my six gun detachments and a Troop Sergeant, were a wonderfully cheerful lot, many of them Cockneys. Strangely, the Madrassis had a rather similar sense of humour so there was a remarkably good rapport between them all and, in spite of intermittent frustrations caused by language, inexperience and sometimes plain dopeyness, we began to build up quite a team spirit and the training in the inevitable basics of marching and gun drill grew increasingly competitive between gun detachments and our troop against the other two, B and C Troops which made up 12 Battery under the command of Major Joe Lawton.
After a time, orders came to move to Mehgaon near Jubbulpore in central India; another tented camp but accommodating only the 3rd Indian Light Anti-aircraft Regiment which besides our battery, consisted of 13 and 14 batteries all under the command of Lieut-colonel ‘ Nat’ Hogan, a small sweet regular soldier who had escaped from Rangoon through Burma accompanied by his formidable mesahib wife who seemed somehow to remain with him at least until we finally moved on to ‘active service’.
Colonel Hogan was the best sort of commander for all of us, broadly speaking, unwilling soldiers who realised nevertheless that we had to become as professional as possible against future involvement with a tough and ruthless enemy who up to now had had it all their own way.
But Nat Hogan would always listen sympathetically and merely exclaim “My, Oh My” when told of any particularly frustrating situations which inevitably arose as a result of the inexperience of our Madrassi troops or even the extremes of the tropical climate, still new to the British officers and did their best to NCOS. The result was that everybody please him and he soon succeeded in creating a great spirit of loyalty in the Regiment.
The training became more intense and technical and now included ‘aircraft recognition’ encompassing all the strange Japanese types like Mitsubishis which, to avoid all the tongue twisting names and confusing numbers, were given code names like Zero and Zeke. The monsoon was now finished and the hot season was upon us but I do not remember finding the intense heat too unbearable, in fact I have always liked hot weather, perhaps because I was born in December following one of the hottest Summers on record.
Anyway, December 1942 found us still in Mehgaon and me celebrating my 21st birthday. Alcoholic liquor was extremely short, the ration being four bottles of Indian beer a month, usually kept for consumption a pint at a time during Sunday curry lunch followed by a siesta or charpoy-bashing as it was called after the wooden beds laced with coarse criss-cross string which served as quite effective springing. As well as the beer, we were able to buy a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey a month and it was also possible to get a limited amount of Indian gin and, more palatable, Indian rum.
It was the latter which seemed to be the only thing available on 3rd December so Peter Richards, Pat Brown, the Battery Captain and one or two others proceeded to demolish this with me to celebrate my having got the key of the door and, at that time, the right to vote in parallel with being responsible for the efficiency and welfare of some 80 troops under me!
The commander of B Troop was a Lieutenant Tony Webster who was an affable and laid back character who behaved and looked like a country gentleman, treating the countryside round our camp as if it was his own private estate. To complete the picture, he had a liver coloured cocker spaniel bitch who he’d managed to have sired by a spaniel of equally impeccable pedigree, where I know not. The result was a litter of six or so jet black puppies, one of which was acquired by Peter Richards and another by me.
A sergeant in the battery was obviously a countryman and I can still see him as he picked up the squealing puppies one by one and bit off their tails, apparently the most efficient way to ensure that the length was exactly to championship measurement! I christened my puppy Sheba and Peter’s was called Jub after the nearby city. I gave my pet away when we finally went to the Arakan on so-called active service but Jub stayed with Peter and survived to a ripe old age in England after the war I also acquired a monkey called Willy who was as naughty as any small child. As was traditional in pre-war Indian Army barracks or cantonments as they were called, all sorts of itinerant tradesman toured the camp to offer their services.
Tailors, sellers of all sorts of goods including the ubiquitous char-wallahs with their urns of hot strong tea, heated by charcoal and carried with straps on their backs.
Barbers too who had everything in battered tin attache cases to give an outdoor haircut, shave or shampoo. It was while somebody was having the latter that Willy leapt on the shampoo bottle, darted to the back of the tent, drank the lot and then scampered to the top looking đistinctly queasy and resentful.
Willy came with me to our next destination which was our first posting in an active service role, the anti-aircraft defence of Bombay harbour. The likelihood of enemy aircraft, even carrier-based, venturing that far seemed fairly remote but with memories of the disaster of Singapore still fresh in the minds of the powers that be, I suppose anything might have been possible in those still sparsely equipped and undermanned days of early 1943.
Two of my gun sites were on an island built as an ancient fortress in the middle of the harbour and still with a mass of underground passages and crumbling fortifications. It was here that Willy, accompanying me on a visit by boat, escaped and, sadly, was never seen again.
My troop headquarters was in the dock area of Bombay in bamboo huts which were reasonably well appointed. As I was the only officer there, arrangements had been made with a nearby restaurant to supply my meals. By now we were technically ‘on active service’ so I had had to say goodbye to my civilian bearer Hari when we left Mehgaon and had appointed one of the gunners, Velu Pillai, as my batman. It was Velu Pillai’s job to go out each lunch and dinner time ‘tiffin carrier’, a series of nestling aluminium containers locked by a carrying handle, to fetch my meal. I had instructed him to put the whole contraption in the cookhouse oven to warm it up after his trip across the city.
One day the pudding consisted of pink coloured custard which, on investigation, had started off as ice cream but had inadvertently been heated up with the rest. In spite of being in the middle of a city, albeit the dock area, I was woken one night by some very heavy breathing uncomfortably close to my mosquito net. On peering out I saw to my horror that a sacred cow had somehow strayed into the barracks and was staring mournfully at me. Whether it was a practical joke played by some rumbustious gunners I never discovered!
Somehow at this time, I discovered that John Gunn who I had not seen since leaving the Royal Bucks Yeomanry and who had survived the battles in France and escaped through Dunkirk, had landed up as Brigadier’s driver in Bombay on loan from the Yeomanry who were now somewhere in Assam and the Northern front on the Indian/ Burmese border. So we arranged to meet and John drove into my headquarters at the wheel of his large American Chevrolet Estate car. The sentry on duty, seeing this magnificent vehicle and thinking it heralded the arrival of a VIP, called out the guard which is the correct procedure when anybody above the rank of Colonel enters a barracks. They proceeded to ‘present arms’ and I had to hurry down and, whilst complimenting them on their keenness, explain that John was only the driver and a friend from England or to give it its military name Blighty. John and I spent manY happy evenings together and he sometimes drove me round Juhu and the smarter parts of Bombay where the Brigadier and his Headquarters were located.
Soon afterwards they moved to Poona and I managed to get a few days leave as I was keen to visit the place which for generations had been the heart of military India. In the event, it was very reminiscent of Aldershot being one large army barracks laid out in very similar style to its British equivalent with its series of neat cantonments. John by noW had also acquired a jeep for his Brigadier so we were able to explore some of the surrounding countryside when he had some time off.
Soon orders came for us to pack up once more and the whole battery, complete with guns, transport and all stores boarded a troop train and set off on what proved to be the longest train journey I’ve ever endured – 7 days crossing the width of the Indian sub-continent from Bombay to Chittagong in the Arakan and pretty close to the Burmese border with what is now Bangladesh.
But even a troop train trundling at what seemed an average 30 miles an hour, bore traces of the luxury and individuality of pre-war Indian Railways. I shared a compartment with Peter Richards which, in addition to having its own individual washing facilities, boasted two wicker armchairs and a small adjoining compartment for our batmen. Peter was appointed Train Adjutant which meant that he was responsible for everything organisational on the than. During one of the frequent stops the troops used to dash up to the locomotive and arrange with the driver to release water from the boiler for brewing up tea.
The officers and NCOS were able to arrange more civilised eating: stopping at one station it was possible to telephone ahead to the next stop and arrange for a meal at the Station Buffet all of which had deservedly high reputations for the excellence of their food and service. At the same time, it was even possible to arrange for a hot bath to be available. It was the fact that Peter had organised one for himself that resulted in my fulfilling what I suspect may be a lot of people’s secret ambition.
We had had a pleasant meal and Peter was still luxuriating in a hot tin bath whilst I had got back on the train. Suddenly, to my horror, the train started off but without the Train Adjutant. I eyed the communication cord but thought I’d better get my moneysworth and so let the train get up a reasonable speed before pulling. So I heaved and, to my surprise, it remained in the ‘pulled’ position, thus making it simple for the guard to find out where the drama had originated. I explained the situation and very soon the whole train reversed majestically back to the station and to a distraught and furious Peter who, technically, should have anyhow authorised the guard to allow the train to leave in the first instance.
The Arakan, of which Chittagong is the capital and main port, was to be our home for the next couple of years or so and the whole of the 3rd Indian LAA Regiment soon assembled there and became part of a Brigade under Brigadier Leveson-Gower which, in turn, was part of the 14th Army whose job it was to defend India and prevent the Japanese conquering the whole country in a similar way to which they’d taken over Malaya and Burma; one possible route they might have taken was through the Arakan. In the event, although there was heavy fighting intermittently round Maungdaw and Akyab over the Burmese border, by far the bloodiest battles and the Japs most determined assaults took place in Assam particularly round Kohima and, once again, the Royal Bucks Yeomanry were in the thick of it and had a very rough time round there. But the anti-aircraft regiments in the Arakan whose principal role was airfield defence, scanned the skies in vain for Japanese aircraft apart from the occasional lone bomber.
So the ensuing months consisted of watching, waiting, training and fairly frequently moving from one airfield to another and guarding from air attack the increasing number of Dakota squadrons, both British and American, whose principal job was dropping supplies to the troops at the front and sometimes landing in forward airstrips to deliver drums of fuel and pick up wounded for evacuating to base hospitals.I went on a couple of these trips merely because I had got friendly with some of the pilots and on one return leg actually took over the controls of a DC3 that sturdy old war horse of a plane which still in remote parts serves as a passenger aircraft.
I did not keep a diary at this time so can only remember the names of some of the places we landed up outside Chittagong itself but not the dates or how long we stayed; Comilla, Cox’s Bazaar, Dohazari were certainly three locations. So the next part of these reminiscences consist of various random aspects of life during what proved to be the nearest I got to “active service” in World War II.
My troop consisted of 4 x 40mm Bofors Light Anti-aircraft guns each under the command of a British Sergeant and a British Bombardier although as Madrassi troops became more proficient, they got promoted with one, two or three stripes but were still given their Indian titles of Naik (2 stripes) or Havildar (3 stripes). All of us, British and Indian, by now were remarkably fit and, I like to think, pretty efficient at gunnery. Certainly on ceremonial occasions, the turn out and smartness both of the gunners and their equipment would have stood comparison with any crack unit but, mercifully, none of us had to prove how we would have fared in any real battle conditions.
In this area, were all housed in bamboo huts, specially we built but very similar to the traditional houses occupied by the locals. Air conditioning was unknown at this time and the only way of attempting to keep cool was by the installation of large hand worked fans called Punkas.
Sometimes it was possible to employ local labour as ‘Punka Wallahs” whose job it was to sit outside the hut and pull the string either by hand or foot and operate the fan to provide a modicum of relief for those inside. Lighting was by hurricane lamp or the ubiquitous, but not army issue, Tilly pressure lamp which had to be pumped up vigorously to provide sufficient vapour to ignite the delicate gauze ‘bulb’. When they worked well, they gave a brilliant light and I don’t remember any blackout restrictions. The only snag was the quantity of flying insects they attracted. I had acquired an ancient (Japanese) portable gramophone and with my few records would sit and listen to music by the light of the Tillys in the warm tropical evenings in true Somerset Maugham style!
My job as Troop Commander was largely administrative coping with all the paperwork without which even the smallest army unit cannot apparently function but it also involved a lot of welfare attempting to sort out problems of gunners families, pay queries and so on. I used to receive a great number of letters written by professional letter writers in florid Victorian style and grammar on behalf of wives,brothers, parents, uncles or cousins often describing feuds that had gone back years in the hope that a benevolent army employer would be able magically to sort something out.
I was sometimes addressed as ‘The Commander in Chief’ with letters starting ‘Most honoured sir’ and signing off with ‘your most humble and obedient servant’ and similar expressions straight from the Indian Civil Service handbook. An Army Welfare Service was by now in place and all that I could do was pass these letters on but I’m afraid that the sheer number they must have received meant that I was never able to find out whether they had any satisfactory outcome.
Principally however, my job was to visit the gun sites by motorbike and inspect the troops and equipment, sometimes springing a surprise ‘stand to’ to see how quickly they could be ready for action, and generally chatting to the Sergeant over the inevitable mug of hot, sweet char. The roads were largely of brick and very dusty. In an attempt to lay the dust, women were employed with clay containers of water and they would squat by the roadside and spray a handful in front of approaching vehicles. The only trouble for a motor bike is that the surface then became extremely skiddy and I’m not sure that these water sprinkling women didn’t harbour a secret hope that a passing Brit might come a cropper. We were not over aware of strong anti-British feeling but the s0-called Ghandi Wallahs with their white hats were fairly much in evidence and at one stage when famine hit the region, the fact that the troops were still receiving more than adequate rations caused considerable resentment with the locals. We tried to help them with gifts of anything we could spare but the sight of peasants collapsing and dying in the paddy fields as I was đoing my rounds of the gun sites was very distressing. The inevitable visit of vultures to devour the remains was the final reminder of the harshness of existence in these remote tropical regions.
The diet for the troops continued uninterrupted and goats for the curry were often delivered live from the back of the ration truck. The cook would almost immediately take a mighty swipe with a cleaver and decapitate the wretched animal whereupon it would be skinned and very soon consigned to the pot. Fruit in the shape of lychees, mangoes, bananas and pineapples were plentiful. Eggs were mostly duck which when fried emerged dark orange with a distinctly muddy taste not helped by the fact that they were cooked in ghee. Add to this tinned army bacon and the traditional breakfast đish became a revolting travesty. Whilst in Mehgaon, the officers mess had employed civilian Cooks some of whom carried treasured crumpled references. I remember one which said “his banana fritters are a delight” and in fact this pudding seemed to be a pretty regular one on the menu however remote our situation in the Arakan.
Whenever the forces move into an area, the troops naturally form themselves into communities of their own thus making one rather insulated from the locals and therefore taking a rather detached view of their lives. The marginal exception was going on leave and the preferred locations, just as in pre-war India, were the “Hill Stations”, the first of which that I visited being Darjeeling.
To reach places in India any great distance from Chittagong invariably meant getting first to Calcutta and the most direct route for this was by train to a railhead called Noakhall. From here one transferred to an ancient rear paddle-wheeled vessel which proceeded slowly up the estuary of the Brahmaputra and threaded through the Sundarbans calling at small villages en route to embark and disembark a seething mob of locals clutching bedding rolls, tin trunks and bamboo containers of assorted fruit, vegetables and livestock. Twenty four hours or so of this and another railhead was reached where one left for the last leg of a monotonous journey into Calcutta, arriving still quite early in the morning. To pass the time we invented a game where the two players each took separate sides of the carriage and scored points counting the number of people squatting in the paddyfields performing their morning ritual of emptying their bowels!
The last part of the trip to Darjeeling was by a narrow gauge railway which followed an amazing twisting route up to this most magnificent of hill stations with its majestic backcloth of the Himalayas. After the extreme stickiness of the climate in the plains, the contrast in temperature was extreme and I remember scouring the shops for what seemed to be the last woollen sweater in the town. But after the initial shock of the cold, Peter Richards and I found a friendly guest house to stay, enjoyed making trips to the local Edwardian built roller skating rink and hiring ponies to explore the countryside North of the town to the borders of Sikkim. The ultimate tourist excursion on horseback was to a vantage point at dawn where, with luck, Everest could be seen. This we did and witnessed the wonderful sight of the sun creeping over Kanchenjunga and the Himalayas. Just between two peaks, looking at this great distance rather smaller, was Mount Everest, visible for a few moments only before cloud enveloped it!
Two other hill stations to which I went on leave were Naini Tal, a town surrounding a vast lake on which one could hire rowing and sailing boats and Ootacamund in Madras, the most English looking of the lot with its Edwardian houses and rhododendron clad hills reminiscent of the posher parts of Surrey. Here a Rajah’s palace had been turned into an officers leave hostel of the most luxurious kind and did indeed give a taste of what life must have been like for the British Raj spending the hot season in the hills and mingling with the Indian elite.
Life back in the Arakan was monotonous by comparison although as in all Service situations, especially in wartime, one never knows what the future will bring in the way of action or location and, most of all, in late 1943 and early 1944 one still had no inkling of how much longer the war would last. So we continued with the same routine of watching and waiting and in Cox’s Bazaar, the location was bordering on the idyllic with my headquarters close to a magnificent sandy beach which could have easily graced the cover of any travel brochure. But behind its glamorous faced, disaster was waiting. Swimming one day in the warm, calm waters I was suddenly aware of the most excruciating pain in the leg as something seemed to entwine itself and inject the most horrific sting. I leapt out and was alarmed to find in a few minutes I became distinctly short of breath with pains in the chest. Managing to make my way to my headquarters, I downed a large slug of my precious Canadian Club whiskey and then staggered off to the nearby RAF medical centre only to be greeted by the Medical Officer with “Sting?” Apparently a shoal of Stingrays had been advancing along the coast and had succeeded in wrapping their deadly tails round thirty or forty swimmers, some in very vulnerable parts of their anatomy.
I was bundled into a ward full of men moaning and crying out with pain and we were given aspirin but not much else. I think the medical people really had no idea what the antidote might be for this poison so just stood by and hoped. In spite of a sleepless night and quite a bit of pain in the leg, by the next day I felt well enough to discharge myself and get back to mY Own troop HQ. The sting which went round my leg two or three times took several weeks to heal but did not have any after effects apart from an official ban on any further swimming off the beaches of Cox’s Bazaar.
I’m not exactly sure where we were, but I think it might have been Comilla, a rather larger town inland which supported a bigger airfield too, when I was summoned to go to Brigade Headquarters at Chittagong and talk to Brigadier Leveson-Gower. By now I had been promoted to Captain, and I had another officer, Curtis Wilmot, to assist me. So leaving Curtis in charge, I made my way to Chittagong. The Brigadier was a charming and urbane man and was said to be very wealthy as a result of being in the perfume business. He certainly had a flair for show business and said that I had been suggested by the Officer Commanding 12 BatterY, Major Joe Lawton, as being somebody who could put together a show and take it on tour to entertain the troops in the remoter parts of the Arakan where everybody was really pretty starved of any form of entertainment. In fact there were people who thought that the 14th Army was still pretty starved of everything and it became dubbed ‘the forgotten army’. Forgotten that is until the arrival of Lord Louis Mountbatten as Commander-in-Chief South East Asia Command who made it one of his first tasks to get round as many troops as possible and reassure them that things would be different from now on. I remember gathering round the steps of his aircraft at Comilla and hearing this stirring message from him and very heartening it was.
But back to the show: apparently, the Brigade had been circulated for volunteers both Indian and British and the response had been very encouraging. So in a few days there assembled a very good five piece Dixieland jazz band, a cockney stand up comic, a supposedly ex-Sadlers Wells singer and yodeller, an exotic conjuror and some Indian acrobats all under the command of Captain Angell who acted as producer and presenter. During the next week or so, we put together a kind of revue based round the band, prepared an itinerary and had some posters printed for ‘Spouts in the Air’, the title we gave to the first production after a well known expression unique to Anti-aircraft guns with their barrels inevitably pointing skywards. As our audience proved to be much wider than Ack-Ack Regiments, the second and more elaborate tour bore the title of ‘Face the Music’. Before we took to the road however, the Brigadier had found funds for the purchase of a piano, a trumpet and a clarinet to replace the rather battered existing instruments which our band had.
So I was dispatched with the band leader to the Army and Navy Stores in Calcutta to acquire these and somehow we managed to scrounge a lift on a Merchant ship for our return journey which in spite of taking three days certainly ensured a safer passage for our precious cargo, than the normal train and ferry trip and, what’s more, was extremely comfortable with good and plentiful food and drink and a pleasant cabin.
In Calcutta, on this and other visits, the normal place to stay was the Grand Hotel and the place to drink was Firpos, famous for their most refreshing Nimbu Pani, fresh lime and soda, sometimes pepped up with Indian gin. On one visit, I had bumped into John Gunn again, on leave with another friend from the Bucks Yeomanry, Tim Stevens. They were only just out of Burma following the Kohima/Imphal campaign and subsequent march to Mandalay. In order to get them into the Great Eastern or Grand Hotels which were for officers only so that we could have some dinner, I had lent them some pips for their shoulders as, apart from this,tropical uniforms for British officers and other ranks were indistinguishable.
The meal was unfortunately cut dramatically short as the Commanding Officer and some other officers from the Yeomanry appeared in the dining room and John and Tim had to retreat very rapidly indeed! The Grand Hotel lounge was vast and furnished with Lloyd Loom chairs which were comfortable but had one great disadvantage – they tended to attract bugs. One day someone obviously felt the sudden stab of a bug bite, stood up and, in order to shake off the attacker, banged the chair on the ground in the hope that the bugs would drop off. In a very short time other occupants of the lounge took up the chorus and there was a deafening cacophony of sound whilst the floor became black with these revolting insects. Beds were also likely to become bug-ridden and a simple first aid was to catch them with a cake of soap and then crunch them with ones nails, the only snag being the obnoxious smell that resulted. If a plague of bugs attacked charpoys, the treatment was to immerse the whole bed in a tank full of boiling water under which was a charcoal fire and often whole barracksful of beds were boiled like this.
Although the Grand Hotel in many ways still had echoes of its pre-war splendour, the general overcrowding in the city caused immense strain on overall hygiene and I certainly remember passing by the kitchens one day and seeing rats literally, as in the words of the old song, ‘as big as bloody cats’ scuttling along the gulleys.
Back in Chittagong, the brigade carpenters shop and PATTRO electrical workshop had put together a portable proscenium with drapes and a set of footlights and floods. So now the whole circus, consisting of a jeep and a three ton truck towing a generator was ready for the entire company with das props and costumes to take to the road.
The next few months therefore consisted of what might be termed, in the original sense of the phrase, ‘One Night a location, putting up the proscenium Stands’. Arriving at and fixing the lights in a suitable jungle clearing or space in a camp and then in the evening, for me anyway, struggling into a dinner jacket which I had rather mysteriously brought out from the UK.
The show opened with the band blasting out what in 1944 was quite a surprise to the audience, a true dixieland rendering of one of the old standards like “Sweet Sue” or “On the Sunny Side of the Street” with plenty of brass interspersed with clarinet variations. I then came on to welcome the audience and act as a kind of compere and stooge to some of the other acts. The cockney comic told all his gags at breakneck speed in rhymin slang with the occasional translation; the whole thing must have been totally confusing to the Indian troops in the audience many of whom still had a fairly rudimentary knowledge of basic English and could therefore hardly be expected to cope with “I was going for a ball of chalk down the frog and toad when I was Pat and Mick all down me Quaker oat, so I staggered up the apples and pears, laid me Uncle Ned on the weeping willow and went to Bo Peep!” And that is about the extent of my memory of that particular joke, the actual pay-off of which escapes me.
The ex-Sadlers Wells singer who did indeed have a fine voice, yodelled a number called “It’s holiday time again my boys” which I’ve never heard performed since, in fact the whole art of yodelling seems to have virtually disappeaređ apart from, possibly, in the Swiss Alps. I’m not sure if it was him or the cockney who also had a song called ” The best looking girls get the worst looking men and the others get what comes along!” but I do remember that the cockney’s finale was a real old Music Hall piece “The One Legged Family” which again seems to have sunk into oblivion, although I have performed it in my amateur theatrical days after the war with Ernest Evans.
I’d never been ‘back stage’ with a conjuror and, of course, as soon as one knows the secrets of a trick it all seems very simple. One particular one required the loan of an officer’s cap in which a bun would be magically ‘cooked’.
This involved a lot of chat and pouring in seasoning and flour which was very thin powder which largely escaped the hat. Then an egg was broken into the hat; now I knew that that egg had been blown earlier but every night seeing it go into the cap, I swear I, like everyone else, saw the yolk and white go in, so convincing was the chat and movements of the conjuror. Finally. a wipe round with a cloth which concealed the bun going in, a few magic words for the cooking, out comes the bun and the officer gets his hat back only slightly dusty!
The names of all my fellow artistes completely escape me but the conjuror told me he was a professional in civvy life. Indeed a couple of years after the war when visiting a fair at Lewes, outside a caravan banging a drum to entice people in to a kind of belly dance cum magic show, all got up in exotic Eastern gear, there he was. Naturally we went in and, once again, the bun was ‘cooked’ in a hat and the trícks were the curtain raiser to a very exotic belly dance. We went ‘backstage’ afterwards and met my man’s wife, the belly dancer and had a good old nostalgic chat about ‘Spouts in the Air’ and ‘ Face the Music’ and wondered what had become of our fellow performers. The Indian acrobats who tied themselves in the most extraordinary knots and got through impossibly small metal hoops probably went back to a circus of which there used to be quite a few still touring even in wartime sometimes with rather pathetic bears and monkeys. The band I hope found work with people like Chris Barber or Acker Bilk for they were all really good musicians and even when forced to abandon their trad, jazz to accompany the entire company in the closing number of “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when” really gave those shows the extra gloss which perhaps some of the rest of us lacked. But the audiences were certainly appreciative and the whole thing was a marvellous break from conventional soldiering for me.
After the war I met Jimmy Perry who wrote “Dad’s Army” and subsequently “It ain’t ‘arf hot Mum” about a travellling troupe in India. I asked him how he got the idea for this and he told me he’d produced just such a show round Poona. I told him of our jungle tour which certainly had to cope with rather more primitive conditions, I guess, but however unexpected or remote the location, Im happy to say we upheld the old tradition of ‘the show must go on’.
I returned to the more humdrum life of a troop commander in time for victory in Europe which had a rather hollow ring for people like us still stuck in South East Asia with the war against the Japanese not showing many signs of going our way, in the Arakan at least. I felt sufficiently aggrieved about all the cheering going on at home in Britain to write to the local paper in Gerrards Cross, the Bucks Advertiser, to remind their readers of the many locals still battling on with the elements as well as the enemy and received sympathetic comments.
In fact, the reality of what in early 1945 we still thought was a pretty hazardous task ahead – the seaborne invasion of Rangoon and Malaya – came sharply home to us when we moved out of the Arakan to Madras near Vizagapatam. Here we took over brand new Morris Commercial ‘self propelled’ 40mm Bofors guns which as well as being capable of airfield defence, were also instantly convertible to Anti-tank guns for use right up at the sharp end with invading troops. But our more immediate training was in getting the guns and equipment loaded on to landing craft. At least that’s what the driver training was leading up to but I don’t remember actually seeing any landing craft on the magnificent East coast beaches of Madras, my most vivid memory of which was the rows of fish hung out to dry to make ‘Bombay Duck’,that spicy and pungent accompaniment to curry .
The training had not got very far advanced however when a bombshell exploded for me. I had not consciously realised the situation but, together with Peter Richards and a few other officers in the Regiment, we had now been in India for three and a half years and that was still the length of a term of overseas service laid down from before the war after which one was entitled to repatriation. And that precisely was what happened – we were told we were due any moment to be sent home. Coming so unexpectedly, the state of euphoria that set in for me probably accounts for my very dim memory of details of this time; I do remember the newly appointed Colonel Sugden, a rather spartan individual who, I’m sure, was a secret admirer of Field Marshal Montgomery, trying to persuade me to stay with the virtual promise of promotion to Major, but I’m afraid I was not susceptible to any offers, although Peter Richards, who really enjoyed army life, did agree to postpone his departure.
From then on, I was just counting the days to the start of the journey home but a note of touching sadness began to settle on A Troop. I had seen these thin and rather pathetic recruits arrive at Deolali and now here they were, a fine and fit body of gunners to whom I suppose I had become somewhat of a Father figure. Anyway, there was much ceremonial and presentation of garlands and they even had a whip round and had bought me a gold signet ring which was a very touching gesture.
What made this whole period even more poignant and confused was that by now the war with Japan had come to its sudden and unexpected end in August.
It was not until late October however that I finally arrived by train at Karachi and moved into a vast hangar built to accommodate the ill-fated R101 Airship in the 30s on the airport in which there were hundreds of four tier bunk beds for people waiting to be sent home. And from here, a few of the officers from the 3rd Indian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Indian Artillery , most of whom I’d got to know over the years, assembled each day to see if our names were on a list posted up for the next flight to Blighty. We had no idea at this stage what a flight from India to Britain really entailed but we were so over the moon at being allotted this form of transport rather than by troopship from Bombay, that all we gradually began to take in was that the only option was the choice of aircraft which lay between the sturdy Dakota or a converted Lancaster bomber called a York.
So the day came when my name appeared and I boarded a Dakota. No conversion had been made to the plane from its recent role of ferrying troops and supplies and the seats were two lines of aluminium benches facing inwards the length of the aircraft. The only minimum gesture to comfort was slight indentations for each passenger’s backside whilst looking out of the window involved straining sideways and downwards which merely squeezed one’s neighbour even more.
But we didn’t care for we were actually airborne and flying West and so we droned on for what was to be the first of many four to six hour hops. The first stop was Sharjah near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, not that we were able to appreciate the scenery as it was dark. Service regulations stated that a hot meal must be served at every refuelling stop and so, irrespective of the hour, day or night and our particular body clock, we all piled into trucks and sat down to stew or roast beef in this remote RAF outpost.
After two hours we were off again and as dawn broke, were flying over endless desert relieved only with mile after mile of oil pipeline until eventually we dropped down to our next destination, Lydda in what was then Palestine. Here the stopover was to be 24 hours and the chance to do a bit of shopping in the NAAFI. I arranged to send home a crate of Jaffa oranges, unknown throughout the war, but sadly some months after I returned, an empty crate was all that was delivered with a very slight aroma of orange. A sealed tin of Cadburys Milk chocolate which I despatched to Peter Richards in India actually made it and was really for him to fulfil a dream he’d had over the years drooling over this unobtainable luxury.
From Lydda we flew along the North coast of Africa to Libya and Castel Benito that relic of the desert campaign which still retained its name after Benito Mussolini and dating back to the Italian occupation of Ethiopia which spread to the whole of North Africa with the help of the Germans.
The Officers Mess in this established RAF station had some Italian prisoners of war doing various chores, one of which was painting a mural under the supervision of a Professor Nicolas Sebastio of the School of Art Beato Angelico in Milan or so he signed a pen and ink portrait which he did of me in exchange for my taking photographs of him and his helpers at work on the mural. I sent off the pictures to him but never heard whether they arrived at Castel Benito before the prisoners presumably all got sent home.
And so our Dakota headed out over the Mediterranean and down for breakfast in Sardinia. How many hours sleep We’d snatched on the ground apart from Lydda, I don’t remember but what with flying west most of the time beating the sun and our getting always nearer England, we didn’t really care. In fact, after taking off from Sardinia, the general air of excitement really built up and we forgot our constantly numb backsides; even Major Carter who I knew from the 3rd Indian and who was made Officer i/c Flight, stopped worrying about his file of papers which he’d been clutching, checking and guarding throughout as if fearful that they’d fly out of the window and we’d all be sent back to India! So here we were on our last leg and heading for home. But this was November and shortly a horrible message came back from the pilot, Britain was swathed in fog and we should probably have to divert to Paris. An agony of uncertainty hung on for an hour or two but then the wonderful news arrived that just one airfield, St Austell, the highest in Cornwall, was open. And so on the seventh day after leaving Karachi, the murky, misty landscape of the Cornish cliffs appeared and we finally touched down and rolled to a halt back again in Blighty on the sort of damp Autumn day we’d all been dreaming of during those three and a half years of endless tropical sun and heat.
Just to underline that we were really home, a slightly grubby Great Western train took us to London where some sort of paperwork was pretty rapidly sorted out which enabled me to get on the old familiar commuter train from Marylebone to Gerrards Cross. I suppose I’d communicated my approximate expected time of arrival – my Father certainly had had enough notice to do an elegantly lettered and coloured ‘Welcome Home’ card which hung outside Seaton Cottage and my Mother had saved up enough of their still scarce rations to provide a welcoming traditional meal. It was certainly daylight but everything seemed slightly unreal and dreamlike. Jet lag had not been invented in 1945 but fatigue certainly had and I don’t think I could have been particularly sparkling company for the next few days while I caught up with sleep after what I suppose was the longest continuous flight it was possible to make in those days.
But although World War II was over, my days in the army unfortunately were not as the demobilisation process had only just begun. So after a few weeks leave, it was somewhat of an anti-climax to be told to report to 130 LAA Regiment in a fairly bleak barracks at Gravesend. The enthusiasm for soldiering was pretty low for everyone although Commanding Officer, Colonel Donaldson, a cheerful Scot with a passion for Snooker was doing his best to keep everyone occupied.
Fired by my show business experiences in India, I offered to liaise with some local entertainment group and we managed to put on some sort of ‘do’ combining the talents of troops and civilians but apart from some girls rather like the Beverley Sisters giving a spirited rendering of “I’ll be with you in apple blossom time”, I remember nothing of the production.
But eventually on 27th May 1946, that magic piece of paper for which everyone was now waiting arrived and 212648 Captain R.M.Angell, Royal Artillery was to report to Guildford for demobilisation. People always find it difficult to define happiness but I think that the moment just after I’d completed the formalities of a medical, signed a few bits of paper and gone round a vast shed to choose a suit, a shirt, a tie, a mackintosh, a pair of socks and shoes and a pork pie hat, all packed in a cardboard box and walked out into the glorious Spring sunshine, I felt supremely happy.
And so with a gratuity of £225 (with which I bought a Morris 8 Tourer vintage 1938) and after six and a half eventful years which took me from a raw 17 year old to a hopefully more mature 24, I set off trying to make a career for myself in the film industry. But that, as they say, is another story.