- Contributed by
- Torbay Libraries
- People in story:
- Ben Cumming
- Location of story:
- Torquay, Torbay, London, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Biggin Hill, Henley, Ayr, Ayrshire, Isle of Arran
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 March 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Paul Trainer of Torbay Library Services on behalf of Benita Cumming, the daughter of Ben Cumming, and has been added to the site with her permission. Ms Cumming fully understands the site's Terms and Conditions.
On that fateful day in September of 1939, which fell on a Sunday, I heard on the radio that Britain had declared war on Germany, as that country had invaded Poland, and our country had a treaty with Poland to come to her aid. It came to my mind when I heard this that now was the opportunity for me to break away from the humdrum existence I was leading at that time and enlist to get away from it - providing the conflict lasted long enough for me to participate (the general opinion at the time was that it would be over by Christmas).
The next day in the local newspaper was an advert for young men, at least 5 foot 11 inches tall, who were wanted as recruits for the Brigade of Guards, and right away I thought, "That's for me!" The first opportunity I had, I was off to the Recruiting Office in Torquay and got signed on. I was given a railway warrant to get me to Exeter, where I went to the Army Barracks there, had a medical examination, passed and got accepted for the Grenadier Guards. I hadn't said anything at home about what I was going to do and when I got back that evening and told them the news, they were very proud of me but also very worried about what was going to happen to me.
I hung around for a few days saying my goodbyes, whilst I waited for a railway warrant to take me to London and Chelsea Barracks, the Guards Depot to where I had to report. My mates said I was crazy, but they all wished me well, and then I was off. It was late at night when I finally arrived at the Depot and was given a meal and put in a room with other new recruits, some of whom were to remain comrades with me for the next five or six years. It was all a very strange experience for me; the farthest I had ever been previously was a school trip to Swindon to view the Railway Sheds!
We did not see anything of the world outside for a couple of months as before being allowed out, recruits had to be able to walk properly as becomes a Guardsman. My Army pay was 14 shillings (70p) a week, of which I made my Mother an allowance of five shillings (25p) a week. After a few days we were issued with a pair of hobnailed boots and a khaki uniform with brass buttons, and on our legs from knee to ankle we wore puttees (strips of cloth). It was the same kind of uniform that troops who fought in the First World War wore. We did not get proper battle-dress until much later. I had to take a lot of stick from my new comrades because as I came from the West Country, they called me a Swede Basher and said that I had straw sticking in my hair.
The next few months were spent drilling and marching on the barrack square and being toughened up in the gymnasium, until we were considered to be fit and efficient enough to be changed from recruits to Guardsmen. We were then put on what was referred to as Public Duties - that is, going on guard at St. James' palace and Buckingham Palace. We also had to do guard on the bridges over the Thames as the I.R.A. were attempting to blow them up.
In early 1940, in the period known as the "phoney war", the Russians invaded Finland. Chamberlain, the then Prime Minister, had the crazy idea of sending an expeditionary force to go to the aid of the Finns. I was sent on embarkation leave prior to joining that force but fortunately the plan was scrapped; it would have been catastrophic if it had been allowed to
go ahead. However, I had gone on leave carrying all my equipment, including a rifle and ammunition. It was my first leave since joining up and the situation had changed a lot since I left home; Joan had left to join the N.A.A.F.I. and my parents could not keep up the mortgage payments on their house at Danvers Road. They had applied for and been granted a house, 23 Starpitten Grove, on the Watcombe Council estate. It was a nice little house, newly built in a cul-de-sac but miles from Torquay town. Sometime after I learnt that Father had been drafted away somewhere in the country, helping in the work of constructing an Army camp. Mother was left on her own and she had to take in some evacuees from the East End of London, two or three boys I think, and I gather they were a right bunch of hooligans. My sister Mary, or "Blossom" as she was known, came to live with her, which made life a little easier for Mum.
The early spring saw the invasion of Belgium by the Germans, and British troops were rushed to the border of France and Belgium to try to stem them, but they were brushed aside and had to retreat, eventually to be evacuated from Dunkirk. The Luftwaffe began their bombing campaign and the Battle of Britain had commenced; the fear in this country was that the German army was about to mount an invasion as barges had been spotted moored at ports on the French coast across the English Channel. There was also the possibility that parachutists would be dropped in great numbers on strategic targets. My mob was the holding Battalion and we were stationed in London for the defence of that city and we were put on alert to counter the dropping of any airborne troops.
One duty was being taken by military transport to various Police stations in the Metropolitan area and two Guardsmen would ride in the Police cars when they went out on patrol, so that there would have been a quick armed response to anyone dropping from the sky. Then, the company I belonged to were sent to possibly defend the peninsula at Greenwich, the location now of the Millennium Dome. In 1940 there was a vast complex there owned by the South Metropolitan Gas Co, where it was reputed they made everything from Poison Gas to Epsom Salts. That in itself was unimportant, but the site itself was important, as whoever was in control there would control the traffic on the River Thames. The area around there was being very heavily bombed. One of our duties during the raids was, if incendiary fell on to the Gasometers, we had to clamber up and place sandbags over them, which was a pretty hairy experience.
After a spell there my company were drafted to Wakefield in Yorkshire, to join as reinforcements to the Third Battalion which had been badly mauled in France, and was in the process of being reformed. We were put into Civvy Billets, which was a great treat after being in barracks in London, having a decent bed to sleep in and home cooking; it did not last very long as the Battalion moved to the East Coast of Lincolnshire and Norfolk where we bivouacked, dug trenches and prepared positions to prevent the landing of enemy troops if they attempted the expected invasion. However, Hitler called off operation "Sea Lion", as it was codenamed, and we were ordered to stand down. There were stories at the time that some invasion barges had tried to land an invasion force somewhere along the East Coast and oil had been poured on to the sea and had been set alight. Rumour had it that burnt corpses had been washed ashore, but I never saw any myself.
We then had another change of duty. We were sent to where the aerodromes of the fighter planes operated from (viz: Biggin Hill and Henley) as the Battle of Britain raged on; the Germans had a ploy of following returning aircraft and shooting up the runway. An ingenious means of defence was sunken pillboxes which by the use of hydraulics rose from the ground and could be used to engage any incoming enemy. Eventually, the R.A.F. formed their own Defence Regiment and we went off to the Home Counties, mainly Surrey, to resume battle training. One location was Lingfield in Surrey where we were billeted in what was formerly racing stables, which was an ideal billet on the grounds that one was able, when off duty, to slip in and out surreptitiously without being caught.
Having a drink in the local pub one evening, I met a girl named Jessica, and after a few more meetings we began a relationship. I soon found out that she was married to a soldier and I should have ended it, but as it was wartime, one's morals were not as good as they ought to have been, and we spent as much time together as we could. It was wonderful whilst it lasted, but it all came to an end one night when I was with Jessica at her home, and she cried out that her husband and his father were approaching the front door. It transpired that they had found out she was having an affair with a Guardsman and they intended to give me a good going over. I scarpered out the back way and got clear. A couple of days afterwards the Padre of the mans unit came to see me and accused me of breaking up the marriage, and I got reprimanded by the Adjutant and was transferred to the Fifth Battalion, which was stationed in Yorkshire. A sad end to a romantic interlude.
The war had been going on for a couple of years now, and the situation was not looking very good for Britain. Italy, of course, had allied herself to Germany and now the Japanese had entered the conflict against us and the United States. The Japanese were defeating us in the Far East, and in the Middle East the Germans and Italians had us on the run. All the Army who were stationed in Britain could do was to carry on training hard and build up enough strength in manpower and armaments to be able one day to counter-attack the enemy abroad whenever and wherever possible and eventually mount an invasion on the mainland of Europe. Most of the training we did was in the north, over the bleak Yorkshire Moors. At Christmas in 1942, we were at a place called Louth in Lincolnshire, billeted in stables and barns on a farm. Some of my comrades who knew I had been a butcher persuaded me to kill and dress a turkey, which operation I duly carried out using my bayonet. It was a huge bird, about 20-30Ibs, and we boiled it and had it for Christmas dinner. It was not what you would call a gourmet meal!
In 1943 we moved to Scotland to go on manoeuvres in the highlands; at the time of course, we were unaware what our ultimate destination would be. The powers that be were of the opinion that that particular terrain was similar to that found in North Africa, which was where we were destined to invade. The first place we arrived at was Ayr, where we bivouacked on the racecourse there (we seemed to have had an affinity with horses!) From there we were sent on a scheme to the Isle of Arran which lies off the coast of Ayrshire, way across the Island and get picked up on the other side a few days later. It was in the middle of winter, we were split into pairs, were not given any rations and were told to live off the land. The idea of the exercise was how to survive in an hostile environment. My luck was in; on the second night we came across an isolated cottage which was occupied by an elderly couple who were frightened out of their lives when they saw us! But the best thing was, there was a middle aged woman who was staying there; she was the wife of a Naval Officer and apparently, she had come there to get away from Glasgow, which was being heavily bombed. Anyway she took a shine to me and that was that, enough said! I would not have minded staying another month or two there. My mate and I made our way to Brodick on the coast where we were to be picked up. There were some shops there and it did not seem that things were on rations. All commodities were supposed to be rationed in wartime Britain, but I was able to purchase several packets of tea and sugar which I sent home when we got back to Ayr, which was much appreciated by
After a spell in Ayr we then moved to a mining village called Tarbolton, where we went into civvy billets which was a real treat, especially if the man of the house was on night shift! But after that the honeymoon period was over for we poor soldiers, and we were now due for real hardships. We embarked at Ayr on to a ship and steamed via the Sound of Bute to Loch Fyne and dropped anchor at Inveraray, where we stayed on board for several months staging amphibious landings and trekking over the Highlands and training in the art of combat with the Commandos at Fort William. This took place in the most appalling weather conditions - driving rain, snow, freezing nights - and it was worse than anything we were to experience overseas. Eventually we sailed out of the Loch via the River Clyde and disembarked at Perth, where we stayed a while in a carpet factory there, awaiting a Troopship to transport overseas. I went on embarkation leave from there and had a few days at home. My other sister, Joan and the man she married, Alec MacPheat, were both there. He was on war work in the area, at a small factory at St. Marychurch, turning out aluminium parts for aircraft. He had been invalided out of the army which was where Joan met him, when she was working for the N.A.A.F.I. My father was also working at that factory as a cleaner. Bloss and Tony, her son, were also there. Tony, who was just a small child then, can remember me coming home with all my equipment and weaponry. It was the last time I ever saw my mother.
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