- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Derek Birch
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- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 02 November 2004
My War, from Boy to Man
When war was declared in 1939, I was 15yrs old and had just completed my O Level exams.
I was to stay at school to study for A-Levels with the hope of eventually going to Cambridge University.
Men aged 18 and over were required to serve in the armed forces but I wasgiven a year’s extension to enable me to take my exams on condition that I helped the war
effort as I could. I therefore joined the Home Guard,(Dad’s Army), and attended parade and exercises on Sunday Mornings plus one sentry duty outside a munitions factory once a week.at midnight when the night shift came on duty. For Sunday excercises I was armed
with a pike (a piece of metal tubing with a bayonet stuck in the end; and for sentry duty a was armed with the only rifle we had...but no ammunition! Each week at school, I joined the fire-watching team overnight. We had camp beds to sleep on but if the air-raid sirens sounded we had to go to the roof to look for incendiary bombs.
None of this was helpful to my studies, but nevertheless I passed my A_Level with enough credits to be accepted at Christ’s College, Cambridge....after the war!.
Meanwhile, my call-up papers arrived and I joined the army on my nineteenth birthday. Within a few weeks of basic training, I passed a War Office Selection Board to be accepted for officer training in the Royal Artillery. This was seven months at the Officer Training Unit at Llandindrod Wells in Wales. In November of 1943 I was commissioned as an Officer in a mobile light anti-aircraft regiment on the south coast,....less than a year after leaving school!.
It was not long after this, that my unit was re-located round the Southampton area when D-day happened and we could not understand why our regiment had been left behind.
imminent and We soon found out. We received a signal warning that attacks by pilotless
aircraft were the guns should be manned for action. Little happened for a few days but
suddenly we were ordered to move eastwards immediately. Long columns of guns and
vehicles stretched almost head to tail along the coastal roads moving eastwards We
travelled painfully slowly through the night until we reached the Tunbridge Wells area. It was about 6am when I was riding a motorbike in the Kent countryside that I saw my first V1. It was travelling very noisily quite near to me in the same direction. Soon tracer-fire was appearing around it but none reaching the target.
My guns deployed around Ticehurst in Kent and continued to shoot at the V1s. They were coming over us almost unceasingly and
our guns were working very hard and were getting some hits. Much of the time the so-called doodle-bugs were disabled by our fire and dropped perilously near to us.
We were moved further east after about a week and one of my guns was located on the golf course at Sandwich in Kent but the cross channel guns from the Calais side made life unpleasant.
I then went along the coast to relieve an officer at Dymchurch where the V1s were coming over thick and fast .
I spent many an hour in slit trenches as the targets were hit and tended to fall down very close to us.
The RAF were behind us trying to mop up those we missed.It sounds exciting but it was very dangerous.When I returned by rail along the coast to Deal, a row of shells from France exploded alongside the train but not close enough to do any damage.I wondered what my brother and other friends still at school were doing.
Soon after this, the V2s started to fall, especially on London and the V1s were tailing off.My unit was recalled into temporary barracks near Reading and I was told I had been posted to India.I had ten days leave at home with my parents in Leicester, then to the Artillery Depot at Woolwich before, with other junior officers we were taken over-night to Glasgow and put on a ship. It was very cold; ice collected on the ship rails but the food in the dining room was superb compared with the war rations at home.I made good use of this
whilst the ship was still anchored in shore. A day or two after this, I woke in my hammock to find we were at sea. The ship was in convoy, escorted by destroyers of the Royal Navy.
For three weeks we were heaving up and down as we went far out into the Atlantic to avoid the German U-boats. I witnessed in the grey and stormy waters, at least one funeral at sea from other ships in the convoy.
In spite of the heaving conditions, each officer had to take turns as Orderly Officer and look to the welfare of the Other ranks. At last we passed through the Straits of Gibralter into a calm, warm Mediterranean Sea now at last controlled by the Allies. Everyone began to eat again and sun themselves. There was no sign of war.
The porpoises swam and leapt joyfully alongside us and all seemed like a holiday in spite of that, I could not help thinking of school and college.
If it had not been for this war, I would
have been an undergraduate at Christ’s College. I was still only twenty years old, an officer in the Royal Artillery, being taken to fight the Japanese when I might have been rowing for my college against an Oxford opponent.
After a brief but interesting stop at Port Said, we continued on through the Suez Canal which seemed so narrow, into the Red Sea. For some reason not communicated to us, the ship moored for some hours off Aden. This is reputed to be one of the hottest plces on earth and it certainly felt like it was in these unpleasant circumstances that I became a real
adult: I celebrated my 21st birthday there: a “dry” troopship moored in a hot-house! The day was partly saved by some nursing sisters who had curried favour with the ship’s officers to win for me a small medicine bottle of whisky! I kissed them all!
We soon reached Bombay where we disembarked and went off inland to a small
transit camp from which over the next few weeks we were dispersed to Indian Army units. A few lessons in Urdu and we were ready for whatever came....or so they thought! I eventually was posted to the 9th Rajputana.Regiment Royal Indian Army. The sepoys or soldiers were very friendly and upright people. I really loved them as I got to know them. I thought, if I had to die I could not be with better people. The Colonel had greeted me with the news that in less than a few weeks we were going to Malaya in Landing craft and we were going to “Knock the Japs for Six”. My heart sank. My job was to train some more indian drivers. We had over sixty vehicles and only a dozen drivers. Time passed and one Battery of the Regiment was embarking in Bombay with their guns which were Bofors anti-aircraft guns. The were to be used in a ground role with armour-piercing shells against the Japanese bunkers.They set off from Bombay to round the tip of India and sail across to
Malaya. The news then came that the Atom Bombs had been dropped on Japan and the war
was over. Those of our men who were on the way were ordered to carry on as occupation
troops but to land as planned.with the landing craft. The intended landing site was used and was a disaster. Vehicles were lost and abandonned, vital equipment was lost and it was only with the help of the Japanese who were trying to surrender that lives were not lost as well as equipment.
Back in India, we celebrated VJ night with considerably more enthusiasm tha was seemly.Those atom bombs were dreadful but they probably saved our lives. So how soon can we go home? No, you must stay to see the end of the British Raj! I was the last British Officer to leave that Regiment and it was in many ways very sad.The Indians were lovely people to be with. But it was Whitsun Bank holiday in 1947 that I arrived home in England and it was September in that year that I joined Christ’s College. I could have matriculated as a boy, but now I was a man.
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