Recruitment and Training
In 1939 National Service was introduced for all Males of twenty years of age to register for a minimum of six months. Conscription in the United Kingdom has existed for two periods the first was from 1916 to 1919, the second was from 1939 to 1960, with the last conscripted soldiers leaving the service in 1963. During the First and Second World Wars, it was known as War Service or Military Service. From 1948 it was known as National Service.
My service call came on October 16, 1939. First I had to have a medical in Leeds and was interviewed by an Army officer. My Medical showed A1 vision and it was suggested that I take service on the heavy anti-aircraft artillery "ack-ack" batteries.
I received a one way Rail ticket to Newcastle upon Tyne, and arrived at Newcastle Barracks in Barrack Road, Newcastle Upon Tyne which belonged to the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, the Regiment I was to join. This incidentally was a machine gun training unit hardly coastal battery at all! The barracks are better known locally as Fenham Barracks and were constructed in 1806. The barracks were home to the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers until 1962, now the Queen's Own Yeomanry, a Territorial Army unit, is still on the site. The other barrack buildings now form part of ‘Leazes Parade’, a development of flats for Newcastle University students.
The Northumberland Fusiliers was an infantry regiment, originally formed in 1674 as the 5th Regiment of Foot. In June 1935 George V celebrated his silver jubilee; the opportunity was taken of granting royal status to the Regiment, principally in recognition of their service in the previous war. The Regiment was amalgamated with three other fusilier regiments on 23rd April 1968 to form the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, a current infantry regiment and part of the Queen's Division.
I was to serve in the 9th Battalion, part of the 23rd (Northumbrian) Division which was formed in October 1939; following a recruitment drive in the early months of 1939 the 9th Battalion was formed as an offshoot of the 7th Machine Gun Battalion, both of which were units of the Territorial Army. At the outbreak of war the Battalion HQ was at Alnwick. Early in 1940 the Battalion was made up to strength by the addition of the number of soldiers who had been conscripted.
The 23rd Division was sent to France in 1940, to aid in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk. On its return to Britain, after Dunkirk, the 23rd Division was disbanded and transferred to the 18th Infantry Division. The 18th landed at Singapore a few weeks before the fall of the island. Its units were taken into Japanese Prisoner of War (POW) camps after the brief but violent week long Battle of Singapore.
Now commenced my six weeks of basic training whilst the war was progressing. Hitler had moved troops into the Low Countries, Belgium and Holland. The British expeditionary Force (BEF) had landed in France.
Then commenced six weeks of tactics training. During that time I had just one day on a firing range for target practice using about ten live rounds only! I also had my first driving lesson for half a day. I was paid at this stage ten shillings per week, I only actually received seven shillings though which is the equivalent of 35p in today’s terms. The rest was kept in reserve in case I lost any of my equipment or kit.
I attended a machine gunnery instructor's course for the Vickers Machine Gun at the 'Small Arms’ School in Netheravon near Salisbury, Wiltshire, for two weeks. Following that one week at the Army Gas School at the Porton Down research facility near Salisbury for information in case of a gas attack (mustard, Lewisite or Phosgene) all may be used by the enemy.
During each of these courses it meant staying over in London to transfer back to my unit. Thank goodness for the air raid shelters in the subways under King's Cross Station. I was promoted to unpaid Lance Corporal after passing the potential NCO course. My first pass for leave came through in December 1939.
Then Germany made its first big move with the Panzer tank divisions driven towards France. This was a quick and fast attack and Allied troops were unable to stop them.
The Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, was the successful German invasion of France and the Low Countries, beginning on 10 May 1940, defeating primarily French forces. There were two main operations. In the first, Fall Gelb, German armoured units pushed through the Ardennes to cut off and surround the Allied units that had advanced into Belgium. When British and adjacent French forces were pushed back to the sea by the highly mobile and well organised German operation, the British government decided to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force as well as several French divisions at Dunkirk hence the great withdrawal to get the troops out of France on what was to be the biggest recall in history Dunkirk June 1940.
Code-named Operation Dynamo, also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk took place between 27th May and 4th June 1940.
We were now detailed to join troops in France on Labour and training duties, without any artillery, signals, or administration units. We arrived at Southampton on 22 April 1940 and were ordered aboard a troop ship. We met up with troops coming home from Dunkirk.
On 20th May 1940, the 23rd Division suffered heavy casualties trying to delay the German advance at Arras. The Dunkirk evacuation followed and on the first day of the evacuation, 7,669 men were evacuated, but by the ninth day a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued by a hastily-assembled fleet of over 800 boats. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the events in France "a colossal military disaster", saying that "the whole root and core and brain of the British Army" had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech on 4 June, he hailed their rescue as a "miracle of deliverance".
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Winston Churchill, June 1940.
On our return to the UK we moved to Crown Hill Barracks in Plymouth, Devon and took up defensive positions on the coast around Launceston in case of invasion. We were issued new Vickers machine guns as many beaches around Cornwall’s coast were suitable for amphibious landings by troops, tanks and other vehicles. These were protected by mine fields, barbed wire, gun emplacements, pill boxes and steel scaffolding. Exits from the beaches were blocked by anti-tank walls and blocks of concrete. These defences extended five miles inland from vulnerable beaches to provide deeply defended zones. These defences were hurriedly put in place during the summer and autumn of 1940. By the following year the threat of an imminent invasion had passed and the defences were thought of as obsolete.
Here we re-assembled with the regular soldiers back from Egypt and we came under the command of Lt. Col. Lechmere C. Thomas, a full time regular soldier and part of the 18th Infantry Division. He was Commanding Officer of the 9th Battalion of The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers from 1940 to 1942, he then served in Burma for the remainder of the War, and stayed in service until retiring in 1955 by then had he attained the rank of Hon. Major-General.
Our next move was in August to Great Yarmouth in Norfolk occupying Pill Boxes and machine gun emplacements we built out of sandbags on the dunes. We were based at Coltishaw in the Battalion HQ and the 18th was spread along the coast from Wells-next-the Sea to Great Yarmouth. This was night duty only, resting during the day as we were still expecting an invasion. The unit was split with one Machine Gun company to each Infantry Platoon. We were bombed heavily here with two soldiers being killed. I was sectioned off here to take over Pill Boxes at West Runton and Blakney. It was a glorious summer whilst we were there.
In January of 1941 we moved to Bowhill House, a home of the Duke of Buccleugh, on the Scottish Borders at Selkirk for more field training at Campsie Fells. It was a bad winter with thick snow. Bowhill House itself was built in 1708 by Lord John Bowhill, the house, today, is now used for outdoor activities, weddings and field sports.
I received promotion to Corporal with pay being three shillings and sixpence per day the equivalent to 17.5 pence today.
Our next move, for a short while, was to a Territorial Army Barracks at Bolton in Lancashire. Now we had a full complement of our own trucks and equipment and we had our first live ammo practice travelling to Trawsfynydd in Wales for this.
I received promotion to Sargent and my pay increased to 6 shillings and sixpence per day, 32p.