78th/35th LAA Royal Artillery
Gnr Riley Army No. 1700095
On the 30th September 1940, Dennis caught the train at Beeston station to Swindon in Wiltshire. From there he would travel a few miles to Ashton Keynes where he would be enlisted into the 78th Battery/35th Light Anti Aircraft (or Ack Ack) Regiment of the Royal Artillery. The 35th Regiment was a special TA Regiment formed at Oxford on the 2nd Sept 1939 for the defence of RAF airfields in the area against air attack. Initially recruiting older men between the ages of 25 to 50, it comprised of five batteries with Headquarters at Abingdon, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Oxford and Reading early in 1940. By mid 1940 this regiment reverted to a normal LAA Regiment and reduced to three batteries, 78, 89 and 144. RHQ was located at Oxford.
Here he would be put through weeks of basic training with all the other recruits before his ‘passing out’ parade and being issued his first assignment. My dad and Sam Barker were amongst these men but the three of them were never together. As yet, they never met one another.
Colonel Fiennes greeted the new recruits with the friendly greeting from all regular army ranks above private, “I’ve never seen such a lot of pasty faced buggers in my life. What a complete shower…..But we’ll soon sort you out.”
Basic training at ‘Cove House,’ Ashton Keynes, Wilts.
Among the men Dennis was billeted with was a religious chap named Johnny Adkin. He would write the longest of letters home and on Sunday mornings, talked his superiors into letting him take services.
Also among the gun crew in the billet was a ‘cat burglar’ who would tell them stories of his capers and prison time. But to the man’s credit, if money was left about the billet he never touched it. When Johnny Adkin went to bed, he said his prayers and the rest of the lads would take the ‘mickey’ out of him.
But by the time they were trained, Johnny Adkin had converted the crew. Even the cat burglar had asked for prayers before turning in.
A Bofor gun site
His first assignment found Dennis on the gun sight of a mobile Bofor gun under the command of Bombardier Hatwell. Here he was to defend a submarine base at Gosport, Southampton, against air attacks.
Sam Barker was assigned to defend the Battle of Britain airdrome at Biggin Hill.
A Cunliffe Owen Spitfire
Dennis’ next assignment was to defend ‘Cunliffe Owen’, an aircraft factory making and repairing Spitfires at Eastleigh. While there, at dawn each day the gun crew would ‘stand to’ and prepare their weapon for action. Their duty was to align the sight of the unarmed gun on a distant point, i.e. a telegraph pole, church steeple or chimney. This was achieved by a member of the crew turning a wheel to elevate the gun barrel and another crew member, (Dennis), turning another wheel to transverse the barrel. A piece of equipment called a ‘predictor’ would be operated to calculate the wind speed and also the height of the any aircraft in its sights. The crew would then wait for the command, “ON TARGET” followed by “FIRE” from the senior ranking crewmember.
On one occasion on ‘stand to’, all the crew expected to hear the metallic thud of the firing pin in the empty breech when the “Fire” command was given. Instead, they were shocked when the gun discharged a live round that was in the breech.
When the smoke had cleared, the crew looked nervously at the intended target. The gun sight had been locked on to the tall chimney of Cunliffe Owen, the Spitfire repair factory.
After the bricks had finished falling, this chimney was now eight foot shorter
This was a complete embarrassment to the senior soldier as well as the whole gun crew.
Needless to say the gun crew were all given a severe tongue lashing.
Within minutes a staff car dove up to the gun emplacement and an officer strode across to a nervous crew. A statement was made and later, to their surprise, the crew were not punished. But I bet Cunliffe Owen wasn’t too pleased.
Another gun crew in the same area as Dennis had changed to a new gun barrel. Their mistake was not to check inside the barrel for grease. When fired, the recoil compressed the grease into a red hot gooey mess that sprayed out over the crew. Ron Petford, as Dennis recalled was temporarily blinded and out of action for a few weeks.
There next assignment was at an oil refinery at Hamble, on the Solent. Thank God a repeat of the fiasco at Eastleigh was not repeated.
When issued with his 48hour ‘leave’ pass, Dennis very rarely used it to return home. Instead he would lodge at the Y.M.C.A. or at friends or relatives homes. It was on one of these occasions that he recalled some particular memories with a grin. The family who he was lodging with had a beautiful daughter named Terry.
“The Marilyn Monroe of her day, she was a beauty,” Dennis drooled as he described her to me.
“I could smell her perfume on her pillow as I slept in her bed.”
At this point, Dennis still grinning, hurriedly added, “Alone though, I slept alone.”
One day he took her to see one of his gun emplacements and was shocked to discover the sight before him. The whole gun emplacement had been obliterated by a bomb. He found out later that a parachute bomb had scored a direct hit and flattened the whole site...
After the Portsmouth raid
It was when recalling this event, that Dennis also remembered one of the strangest events he saw after a bombing raid on Portsmouth. A stick of bombs had exploded and a pub had literally been blown up from its foundations and deposited across the other side of the street intact. Ignoring the broken windows, he said it looked as though that was where the pub had been built. Of course it was declared unsafe and later demolished.
When returning from leave at relatives in Caterham, Surrey, he joined the queue outside a railway station filled with hundreds of men returning to their bases. Overhead a German bomber was circling. Suddenly the lights came on inside a tobacconist shop doorway. Dozens of men outside the shop shouted for the lights to be extinguished and the lights went out.
Searchlights swept the sky and picked out the circling bomber, but lost it as it turned and weaved away. Suddenly the tobacconist lights were switched on again, and again the men shouted their curses.
Dennis turned to a soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder and asked for the loan of it. Taking it from him he smashed the three glass window panels and prodded the rifle at the light shattering the bulb. The soldiers cheered Dennis as he handed the rifle back. Police and warden came running and took Dennis’ name, telling him his action had probably saved the lives of hundreds of men in the station from the bomber above. They said he would be rewarded. Dennis tells me he is still waiting.
The troops were on a gun site at the I.C.I. factory at Mirfield when they got the orders for mobilization. They were sent to Middlesbrough to a staging centre, where the 78th made ready for the move to Scotland. It was here that the thought of going overseas to fight proved too much for a couple of the lads. One shot himself in the foot and the other opened a bedroom window and threw himself out. The outcome of both men’s efforts was not known to Dennis, as the next morning he was to join others for the trip to Gouroch in Scotland.
A family who had taken a liking to Dennis by letting him have a hot bath, feeding him and generally socializing with him, were sorry to see him go. Days before, they had arranged with the local priest to bless a crucifix and chain. The day before he left they presented him with it and bid him good luck. He was to lose it somewhere in the humid tropics of Sumatra.
On the 8th November 1941, the 78th/35th were kitted out for Iraq in the Middle East and entrained to Gouroch