Sketch by Jack Chalker

Phony War

My introduction to army life started at North Allerton Jail, sleeping on a camp bed in the cells. It was so overcrowded some had to sleep in the corridors. The cookhouse was a marquee. Fortunately we only stayed there 3 days. We were then marched to the railway station, some still in civilian kit, all with our civvy gas masks. What a ‘motley crew’, trying to keep in step was impossible. We had one in front who just could not march, swinging his arm and leg at the same time.

Our destination turned out to be the Military Police No. 1 Training Depot at Ashvale, Mitchet in Surrey. Vastly different to the cells at Northallerton. Wooden huts with 15 men to each section, with a sergeant instructor. All instructors were Ex. Guardsmen and very strict on ‘Barrack Square Drill’. The full course lasted 6 weeks and was very comprehensive . We then had to pass a very stiff test on motorbikes, map reading, making out charge sheets and a 20 point questionnaire on situations likely to arise in the course of our duties as Military Policemen. But most of all not to take any notice when overhearing ourselves as "Red Cap B----ds". Needless to say, many failed the last hurdle and were transferred to Infantry units.

I remember one of our P.T. Instructors on unarmed combat was Denis Compton. He demonstrated how to disarm an enemy if he was marching you off with a pistol in your back. The idea was to swing round sharply and get an arm-lock on your adversary. His assistant had a blank round in his 0.38 Smith & Wesson pistol, which we were all issued with on passing - out. Unfortunately, Denis didn’t turn round quickly enough and the blast set his denim battledress smoldering. Needless to say it tickled us a bit being true Yorkshire Cricket fans.

Another situation which sticks out in my mind was on one occasion we had finished our basic P.T. and our instructor said "pick 2 teams and we’ll have a game of rugby". Needless to say it was rugby union, but when it came to picking the sides, one of the Southern element (it was about half & half at the time), suggested "How about a North V South sergeant". This was just up our street as we had got a bit ‘browned off’ with these (to us toffee noses) as they were able to go off home regularly on weekend passes, bringing the sergeant instructor little tidbits to curry favor. Unfortunately two of their lot finished up in dock, one with a broken nose when I handed him off, another with a twisted knee. I must say, they treated us with much more respect after that.

Passing - out early August, we were seconded to the newly formed 18th Division, centered in East Anglia. Our H.Q. was at Trowse House .

Passing Out as Military Policeman

The successful few

 I am far right back row

Our Provo. Coy. consisted of a D.A.P.M. not attached to us, but over the whole Eastern Command we did not have any officers of our own. We had an O/C Capt. Macardle from an Artillery Unit and a First War Veteran and two Lieutenants from Infantry Units. Our Unit was split into five Companies of twenty five, including a Sergeant and two Corporals, one unit with the R.A.’s and one unit at Div. H.Q. I was in the latter, living in a civilian house billets three stories high, lots of steps and we occupied three houses.

There were many Air Raids at Norwich. On one occasion a stick of bombs fell in our street, one on a house three doors away. I was on the toilet, heard the bombs dropping, whistling, but was transfixed. I heard one of my mates fall down the steps in his haste to get to the shelter. I had to report to H.Q. and outside our billet came across an A.R.P. Warden slumped against a wall, the back of his neck blown - out. completely dead. There were many killed that night. We were in the flight path of enemy bombers coming over almost nightly, bombing Coventry and Birmingham. They were allowed to go over with their deadly loads, but everything was thrown up at them on their return from the Ack-Ack Units scattered around Lincolnshire. Our interceptor Fighters were very thin on the ground around this time concentrating on protecting London. I had occasion to go to Coventry shortly after one of their biggest Blitz and talking to the locals about their experiences many were the hair-raising stories told, mostly at the top of their voices, as everyone was slightly deaf after the terrible noise of the bombs and landmines. One of my Leeds buddies was on an out section stationed at a place called Swaffam. They were billeted on a Pleasure boat on the Norfolk Broads, his name was Jim Phillips. I envied him greatly, well away from strict discipline.

It was from Norwich I got my first leave 5 months after leaving home, and what a change in our son Alan. He seamed twice the size I remembered. He was in bed when I arrived home. I went up stairs to see him and had to wake him. He got on his hands and knees and looked at me, looked at his mother, back at me with a scowl, as much as to say ‘Who the hell are you'. He certainly knew me before I had to go back.

We had a good time really at Norwich. There was a dance hall called “The Samson Hercules”, where we were allowed free entry , but had to quell any disturbances if they arose. It being a Military City with a barracks on Mousehole Heath. Consequently there were more soldiers than civilians. We worked very close with the civilian police, they were mostly Old Timers. The young ones being called up and of course a lot of our chaps being recalls from civvy police. I got very friendly with one of these types a lad called Frank (Wacky) Jones, who was a village cop at a place called Wellington in Shropshire. He took me visiting one Sunday morning to his Landladies house. The father and sons took us to the local. Everyone who came in shouted greetings (proving his popularity) and sent us over drinks. By closing time our table was full of drinks. I was never a big drinker, but not wishing to damage his image, I did my manful best. It was the first time I had ever been drunk and walking back to his digs, I felt as if I had a pillow attached to each foot. His Landlady had prepared a sumptuous Sunday roast with all the trimmings. The sight of which my stomach rebelled and I had to make a hasty exit to the toilet. When I returned the lady of the house was upbraiding her husband for getting me in such a state, fortunately Wacky had let me do most of the drinking as he had to drive us back in his little Austin 7 sports. He ribbed me something cruel.

My wife Susan came and spent Christmas 1940 with me at Norwich in digs near Thorpe Station - I think she enjoyed the experience, I certainly did. Soon after this, our whole Division moved North to Scotland. It was one of the coldest winters for a long time . Two of us, Tiny Mollet, a 6’5” ex guardsman, and myself, were detailed to escort a ‘Troop train’ of all H.Q. Staff. We traveled via York. We played cards during the journey and I arrived in Scotland totally skint. I had to thank ‘Tiny’ for subsidizing me till next pay parade. Most of our Division traveled North by road and in all we lost 5 men killed in road accidents on the treacherous slippery roads. I thanked my lucky stars I went by train. The weather was so cold in Scotland the pubs couldn’t serve beer as it froze in the pipes. Our billet when we arrived at Melrose, was an old scout camp with wooden huts in a field. We were the first to arrive as we had come quickly by rail, only to find the camp frozen solid. A corporal had been left to hand over to us, which he did very quickly after advising us to go over the road to the Gala Rugby Club, who had plenty of hot water and allowed us to do our ablutions there. It was like another world, after being in the flight path of enemy bombers coming over almost nightly.

It was from Melrose I had my second 7 days leave. I was at home in March 1941 when Leeds had its biggest air raid. It was a Friday night and I was due back the following Monday at 8a.m. Roll Call. I decided to take my wife and son back with me to the quiet of Melrose and we left home Saturday night at 11 p.m. to walk to Leeds Railway Station, passing my brother Cyril guarding a big bomb crater in the middle of the road near Penny Hill at the end of Jack Lane. ( he was now a Special Policeman) and caught the 12.50 a.m. London train to Glasgow. It was the Flying Scotsman. Miraculously it was on time and a very obliging porter put us in a First Class carriage on our own, after lodging the pram and luggage in the Guards van. We alighted at Melrose Station in the early hours, packed everything in the pram and set off round Melrose village looking for digs for Sue and Alan. It was then we made a very unhappy discovery. No one wanted to accommodate us. Apparently, a short while before our Division moved into the area, there had been a contingent of evacuees from London of Firefighters and their families taking a well earned rest from their arduous labors during the London bombings. They had been so noisy and unruly the locals now wanted a rest, they hardly knew there was a war on. So we had to walk to the next village, Galashiels along the banks of the river Dee, a distance of about 6 miles. Spring was in the air and,although there was snow on the ground, it was a sunny day. We arrived in Galashiels and went to a Temperance Hotel and when we told the manager our story he took pity on us. He got one of his staff to take us in as one of his lodgers.

I had to report back to my Company for 8 a.m. the following morning and had to walk all the way. Consequently I was 10 mins. late but when I reported the circumstances to the R.S.M. he let me off and granted me a sleeping out pass. So I was back and forth from Galashiels every morning and night. We didn’t have our motorbikes with us as we were poised for embarking, but the whole country was in a flux and we were the No. 1 Division fully trained for action ready to be sent where most needed.

After about 10 days rumors became very strong, so I reluctantly sent Sue and Alan back home as things had apparently been very quiet after the blitz, so I preferred them to be at home when I moved. When the decision was finally made, our Division was moving down to the Midlands at Whittington Barracks Knutsford. I was detailed along with two other L’Cpls. to drive on our own on two solo bikes and a combination. I mapped out the route and made it via Leeds, so I could call home, which we did, causing quite a commotion in the street. We had only time for a slap up meal then on our way again.

I was soon able to find digs for the family at a turkey farm near the barracks, and once again managed a sleeping out pass. I spent almost every night with Sue and Alan. We were doing a lot of road patrolling down Watling Street, keeping a close eye on army transport making sure they obeyed the rules of conduct, one of which was no Officer allowed to drive an army vehicle. I had occasion to ask an Officer, who was driving with his Batman at his side to change over. We couldn’t put officers on a charge, but if he’d refused to obey my request, I could have submitted a report, so there was no argument. We knew the lads liked to drive, but if the Officer expressed a wish to drive they were not in a position to argue, so we did it for their benefit.

The farm Sue, Alan and I stayed at was owned by a Mr. & Mrs. Cater, who had a young daughter of about six years old and she enjoyed the company of Alan.

Alan

Among the turkeys at Cater’s Farm, Norfolk

Mrs. Cater was an ex nurse and got on marvelous with Sue. They made us very welcome only charging us 10/- per week and I think Mr. Cater welcomed my presence on the farm, as I used to come off duty at all hours of the night riding my motorbike, sometimes 1-0a.m. He said it saved him sitting up all night with a shotgun on his knees guarding his hundreds of turkeys. I also had a turkey egg for my breakfast every morning.

This idyllic situation didn’t last very long, approx. a month, then very strong rumors again and we were granted another weeks embarkation leave. I knew it was definite this time, not of course letting on to Sue. I took them home as we were moving to Stourbridge. I promised Sue I would send for her as soon as I found digs. but I knew it was a final good-bye. When I left home after my leave my father came with me to Leeds Station , I told him this was my final leave. We parted with heavy heart, wondering would we ever see each other again, and so my big adventure began................................

 

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