- Contributed by
- Allen Bowtell
- People in story:
- Allen Bowtell
- Location of story:
- Various places in England
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 January 2004
During the Spring of 1944 the amount of military vehicle movement through the Farnham area increased considerably. This was most noticeable through the main street of the village of Wrecclesham which was narrow in places with a number of bends in it.Unfortunately for the residents this street happened to be on a direct route to Portsmouth and the south coast. Lengthy convoys of wheeled and tracked vehicles wound their way through the village causing a great deal of noise during the day and night. On some occasions an armoured track vehicle that had difficulty negotiating a bend, usually at night with their very restricted lighting, would slice off part of a brick wall. Because of the complete clamp down on information we could only guess that all this activity had something to do with the preparation for the invasion of Europe.
On the night of the 5 June 1944 I was at work and during the night there was a constant roar of aircraft engines, the noise was so loud that it could be heard over the sound of the machines in the workshop. When we had a chance to look outside during our tea break we were stunned by the sight of hundreds of our aircraft. There were bombers, fighters and glider tugs with their fully laden gliders, flying in a continuous stream over our factory towards the South Coast. It was not until we heard on the early morning news broadcast that we learned what all the noise was about. The long awaited 'Second Front' had started, which was the day the Allied Armies landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. From that day onwards the 6 June was to become known as 'D. Day'.
During the period when I rejoined my parents to live in Farnham I transferred to the local A.T.C. squadron No. 229. The parades were held in the town's old Territorial Army Drill Hall. There were two particular events that I recall whilst I was with this squadron. One was a series of training sessions in the radio wing of the Army Staff College Sandhurst, Camberly. These periods were designed to teach us how to operate Army radio sets in case there was a need to man these sets in an emergency.
The other event occurred in the Summer of 1943. This was a weeks camp for some members of our A.T.C. Squadron to Biggin Hill aerodrome in Kent. The aerodrome was one of the foremost fighter 'plane stations in the Country, and renowned for some of the exceptional things done during the Battle of Britain. Most of the aircraft being used by the squadrons at that time we were there, were the Spitfire Mk. IXb. Because this was an operational station the aircraft had to be ready and serviceable as soon as possible after returning from a mission. To help with some of these servicing tasks I was assigned to assist one of the regular R.A.F. ground staff, to check that the oxygen bottles were full and replaced when necessary. This gas was essential for the pilot to breathe properly when flying at high altitudes. Tests had to be carried out on the radio to see if it was functioning correctly on each of the pre-set channels, as good communication had to be maintained between Base and other aircraft on the same operation. In addition it was important to ensure that the instruments were checked and re-set to their correct settings.
Our A.T.C. squadron was lucky to have picked this particular week for their camp, because during the week Biggin Hill celebrated their 1000 enemy aircraft shot down. As guests of the Station we were invited to take part in the activities organized for the occasion. On the particular day in question, the personnel of the Station and the A.T.C. cadets were paraded on the square and the Station Commander, Group Captain A.G.'Sailor' Milan gave a short speech, during which he announced to the Parade 'that resulting from a sweep over Northern France the Stations aircraft had shot down its one thousandth enemy aircraft. During the day a special dinner would be served and a dance to be held in the evening'. While the dance was in progress one of our cadets found a number of spare 'biscuits' [square fibre-filled bed mattresses] in an adjoining empty barrack room. With about 30 of these he placed them on the bed of his friend, who was at the dance, and put his made up bedding on top. The unfortunate victim must have enjoyed himself enough not to have cared, as he slept soundly all night a considerable height from the floor.
During the week we were given instruction on the Vickers Maxim machine gun, followed by a practice shoot on the 30 yard [27.4 m ] range. To us youngsters this was a dream come true, having the experience of firing off a number of rounds at rapid rate into the target at the end of the range.
On another day our group of cadets were in the dispersal area when a Spitfire landed with a punctured tyre. The senior member of the repair team told us to jump onto the trailer carrying a number of regular aircraftsmen and a spare wheel. We were then taken out to the disabled aircraft as fast as the tractor could take us. On arrival we had to put our backs under the wing on the side nearest the punctured tyre, then lift the Spitfire so that the R.A.F. team could exchange the wheel with the one on the trailer. Now it was back to the dispersal area on the trailer, the aircraft taxied back under its own power, the whole operation taking a matter of minutes. This episode gave us a very clear picture of the way the ground crews were able to keep our fighters ready for combat during the demanding times of the Battle of Britain.
Friendly rivalry between the Allied air forces was demonstrated one day during the week .On this occasion for some reason or other an American Thunderbolt P-47 fighter landed at the Station. The 'Bush Telegraph' informed us that during lunch in the mess, the Thunderbolt pilot and a Spitfire pilot had a wager as to whose aircraft could take off and reach operating height in the fastest time. It turned out on this occasion the Spitfire won the contest. The experiences of the week at Biggin Hill proved to be invaluable later on when we joined the Regular Services.
In addition to our camp at Biggin Hill our A.T.C. Squadron visited an R.A.F. aerodrome at Odiham, Hampshire for a day. One of the units stationed there was engaged on photographic reconnaissance. At the time we were there, the unit was engaged in obtaining as much information about the German defences in Northern France as they could. One of the ways they did this was to use high speed aircraft fitted with cameras. For this purpose fighter aircraft such as the Spitfire were stripped of all their armourment and cameras installed in their place. Because of the reduction in weight the extra speed the aircraft obtained managed to keep it out of trouble from enemy fighters. Having obtained the photographs the aircraft returned to Odiham and on arrival would drop the film by parachute to the photographic processing trailers situated at the edge of the airfield. By the time the aircraft had landed and taxied to the dispersal area the film would have been processed and being examined by the intelligence officers. Another activity that was occurring at that time was a modification being carried out on a number of Mustang fighters. This work required a new bearing to be fitted to the propeller shaft. The method the engine fitters used to accomplish the task was to shrink by freezing the bearing in liquefied gas, then fit it into its housing. When the bearing regained its normal temperature a very tight fit was obtained which held firm when the engine was running. During the time we were there the highlight of the day turned out to be a 20 minute flight over the surrounding countryside and the town of Basingstoke. The aircraft used for this trip was a de Havilland Dominie which was the forerunner of the Dragon Rapide. For many of the cadets this was the first time they had flown in an aircraft and it whetted their appetites to look forward to future trips.
On several occasions during the Summer of 1944 I had to go up to London, it was then that I experienced at first hand the fear of the V 1 flying bomb. It was very frightening to hear the unmistakable jet engine throb of the 'Doodle Bug' [as it was known by most people]. However, when you thought it had passed you, the engine would suddenly stop, a deathly hush would follow, when that happened the best thing to do was to lay face down on the ground and cup your ears with your hands. After a short while the bomb would explode with a tremendous bang causing a great deal of damage to buildings and sometimes killing or injuring people in the area. At one time I was taking a Morse aptitude test for air crew selection when a V 1 came within earshot to add a little drama to the situation. This time there was no taking cover or similar action by the candidates. It was carry on as normal hoping the bomb was going to land somewhere else.
Later on during September an even more terrifying bomb was launched on the war weary people of London, this was the V2 rocket. Without warning this bomb would fall from the sky and land anywhere in the Capital. These rockets caused more damage than the V 1 because the war head contained a larger amount of explosive. In addition the lack of any kind of warning had a demoralizing effect on the population, who had suffered so long from the constant attacks of one kind or another from the air.
On the 21 December 1944 I enlisted in the Army, my reporting centre was the Guards Depot at Caterham, Surrey. After being sworn in with the rest of the bewildered eighteen year olds in the room, we were now recruits in the Coldstream Guards. Our first drill parade was on Boxing Day. It was a bitterly cold day with snow on the ground, we did not think much of this as a Christmas present. For the next three months the instructors set about changing us from civilians into guardsmen, no mean feat. From the Guards Depot we were transferred to the Guards Training Battalion at Pirbright, Surrey. Here we learned the skills that would be needed when we joined an active service unit. Before I completed this infantry training I was moved to the Guards Armoured Training Wing ,that was situated in another part of Pirbright Camp. When I arrived there I learned that I was to be trained as a gunner / radio operator in Churchill Tanks. It was an intensive course, learning to strip, assemble and fire different types of Armoured Fighting Vehicle main armourment and various machine guns. In addition we had to learn how to operate the radio and the maintenance tasks required to keep the tank fighting fit. About the time I completed my A.F.V. training the Army decided to disband the Guards Armoured units and revert to their traditional role as foot soldiers. This took place shortly after V.E. Day 8 May 1945. Now it was back to my previous accommodation block in Pirbright Camp and continue with the infantry training again.In order not to waste the skills I had gained in radio operation I was selected for training as a Regimental Signaller. This required learning how to use a number of infantry radio sets, field telephones and laying telephone lines. We were taught the use of codes to convey information, so that an enemy could not understand the contents of the message. After completing this course I was transferred to Catterick Camp in Yorkshire for three months on a Signals Instructors course. In the period between these two courses V. J. Day 15 August 1945. occurred. After passing out as a Signals Instructor, I returned to Pirbright Camp to join a team of instructors training young guardsmen to become Regimental Signallers. This job I continued to do until my release from the Army on 8 January 1948.
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