- Contributed by
- People in story:
- William Cockburn
- Location of story:
- In this part - England,signing up!
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 May 2005
The Royal Marines;
It was mid -1942 ,the war was well into it's third year ,and I was extremely fed up .
Since the Blitz nothing much had happened to break the monotony in wartime Manchester,with very little to distinguish one day from any other.
Then ,whilst sitting in the bus on the way to work one Monday morning - and reading my neighbour's paper - I spotted an advert calling for volunteers for the Royal Marines.I had no idea what the Royal Marines were or what they did , but I was attracted by the information that they would accept recruits at 17 years of age who could sign on for the duration of the war.
I applied that same day and - eventually - received instructions to attend at Dover Street for a medical examination.
I t was during the course of this medical examination that I was made aware that the Marines were part of the Navy .
Anyway ,after a period of frustrated waiting my "call-up" papers came and I left home on my 18th birthday ( 10th December 1942) to begin my service career ...
It was two weeks off Christmas 1942 when my intake joined at Lympstone in Devon .Our squad number was 395 and I think our squad sergeant's name was Dean ( or was it Drury ?...)My memory for names has always been terrible but there are a few of my squadmates that I remember reasonably well. Charlie Guy from Pudsey ,Eric Ashurst from Eccles ,Albert (?)Thomasson from Bolton or Bury ,and a lad from the south called Louis Pengelli-Phillips , whose claim to fame was that his brother ( in the RAF) had flown low over the Champs Elysees and dropped a Tricolor on the Arc de Triomphe to mark Bastille day .
Another name that comes to mind is "Yanto" Green from Wiltshire who has the distinction of being the only family man in our squadron having become a proud father shortly before joining.
Apart from his fatherhood , he was - like the rest of us - an eighteen year old innocent.We were ,like all the other squads ,a cross section of the entire British population and here we all were ,living cheek by jowl in a Nissen hut.A group of complete strangers initially who ,by sharing experiences ,became friends.
We got through the first six weeks of basic training without too many mishaps.I have many memories of that time ...
The haircut !
The needles !
But the most salient ones are of singing " a life on the ocean wave " which was obligatory at the "Globe Theatre " before the film was allowed to start.
Then there was the three mile cross country run , and the time when I tried to dig a hole in the parade ground with my nose as two Focker-Wulfe 190's came in from the sea at low level and hedgehopped over the camp whilst we were being drilled.
Apart from the military side of the training we had to learn to fend for ourselves in areas that previously our parents had dealt with.
Laundry was the hardest chore for me personally and I quickly adopted a procedure recommended by the Trained Soldier of our hut.
This consisted of taking a bath while wearing underwear plus shirt and socks.These items were soaped " in situ " and then removed to be rubbed singly by hand still sitting in the bath.The bath was a galvanised tin affair - circular in shape with just enough room to sit with one's knees drawn up.It was simplicity itself to rinse ,wring and hang out the washing ,then dry yourself and don clean clothes.
When we first arrived at Lympstone we came by train from Exeter , alighting at Topsham and entering the camp on foot by what was effectively the rear door.It was natural that when we were judged fit to be seen in public we used the same route out to taste the local delights.In my case this amounted to visiting the Toc-H in Exeter.I only went through the main (front) gate twice.Once for a cross country race and finally on the day we left.
From Lympstone we were moved to Dalditch for a further 7 weeks infantry training.
In our innocence we had thought that Lympstone had been rugged and that we had been "roughing it ".We quickly came to realise that our Sergeant there had been benevolence itself,and that when he said that we would never have it as good again he had been telling God's honest truth.
The weather was vile - it was now February 1943 - our huts were downhill from the offices and parade ground so we had to climb up muddy grassy slopes whenever we set out to eat, report, parade , answer calls of nature or whatever.
It was obviously impossible to reach the parade ground with clean boots but this did not prevent our NCOs and officers expecting us to manage it.Thus we were introduced to The Military Mind at its worst .And as a consequence to punishment such as extra drill and fatigues.Another little novelty we encountered was the administartion of laxatives en-masse !
This was later fervently denied but my most salient recollection of my time at Dalditch was of having a sleepless night due to acute diarrhoea and being unable to get to the latrines ( at the top of the muddy hill of course) because of the long queues.
Next morning we had much more than mud to deal with ....
After Dalditch ,which we left without much regret , the bulk of our squad was drafted to the R.M. Siege Regiment stationed at St.Margaret's Bay and Lydden in the Dover area.This consisted of two gun batteries , "A" battery at St Margaret's was three emplaced ex-naval guns ,two of which - both 14" - were known as "Winnie " and "Pooh ".A third gun - " Bruce" had been substantially sub-calibred to a mere 8" for experimental purposes.These guns had been made for a battleship of the King George V Class ,destined never to be built.The other battery at Lydden consisted of three 13.5" railway mounted guns,the barrels of which had come from the turrets of a French battleship "acquired" from the Vichy government.These were somewhat dramatically named "Gladiator" ,"Sceneshifter" and "Peacemaker."
Our draft manned "A"battery ,and I was part of "Winnie"s crew.
These batteries had been put in place after Dunkirk to guard against the prospective German invasion in 1940.From that time until we arrived in early 1943 it seemed that the original gun crews had had no leave.By this time we all had just over three months service and thought we ought to be due a spot of leave to show our families what handsome fellows we had become.Not a bit of it !First the original crews had to train us ,then they had to take their leave in rotation after which we "sprogs" could start on our own rota of leave.Eventually however our turn did come and we all had the chance to do a bit of swanking in our home towns.
At the time we joined the regiment the threat of an invasion had largely receded.Nevertheless a high state of alert was maintained and we another first in our careers was regular watchkeeping.For the whole of our time with the Siege Regiment we did a 24 hour watch followed by 24 hours off,the a 12 hour night watch followed by 24 hours off then another 24 hours on watch.Time off was actually only time off watch duty.One still had to do the usual share of duties during the normal working day .
Apart from the occasional salvo lobbed at us from across the Channel we were never in much danger from the enemy.On the odd occasion that Jerry lobbed a couple over we were obliged - if off watch - to take cover.This we did in a shelter excavated deep into the chalk ,which had a tendency to shower down upon us at the slightest vibration.Thus providing amusement for those on watch when we emerged .
When a large naval gun is emplaced on land ,the ammunition and services normally contained in the turret aboard ship have to be dispersed to left and right at the rear of the gun.This together with the space needed for defensive positions meant that the area enclosed by our perimeter wire was quite large.Even when sentries were "double banked " at night it was difficult to prevent anyone familiar with the layout from penetrating our perimeter.There was one particular officer who ,when he was Officer of the Day , delighted in testing the guards' abilities during daylight hours by demanding that they carry out some drill or other ,and after dark testing their nerves by creeping up on them ,and if not challenged ,announcing his presence with a thunder flash or two.
For anti-aircraft purposes the perimeter was provided with "Pom -Pom".This was an automatic cannon of dubious age ,mounted in a circular sunken pit and this was where we kept watch in daytime.One hot sunny summer's day Albert Thomasson and I were doing exactly that ,but in a very relaxed manner you understand.Under the bluest of skies ,the sun was really hot and all was well with our world.The the aforementioned officer hove into view ( being rather rotund he hoved quite impressively)Anyway he required us to demonstrate the weapon.Unfortunately ,not having had any training on this gun both Albert and I were nonplussed.However we had been "in" long enough to know that ignorance was no excuse and so we asked him how we could oblige him.He indicated a small crater in the chalk on the opposite side of the valley from our position and ordered us to " put a round into it..."
Albert (trainer) and I (layer) were agreeably surprised when our efforts resulted in not just one but two satisfying puffs of chalk from the target."You silly man !" Roared the Lieutenant "I said one round ."I had failed to swith the gun from automatic to single shot.Apparently the farmer whose land we had attacked was not very impressed either.
This incident hovever stood us in good stead on a later occasion when we were performing the same duty.Albert was scanning the landscape when he let out a yelp and handed the binoculars to me to have a look.The cause of his excitement was a platoon of the Wehrmacht walking just below the ridge on the opposite hillside near to "our" crater.The Guard Commander was somewhat dubious when we reported our sighting by field telephone and it became obvious that the Germans would disappear from view before we could convince HQ back in the village.
So - now being skilled operators of the Pom Pom we aimed and fired a shot a few yards ahead of the enemy.The effect was instant and electric.They dropped their weapons and put up their hands !Being quite a distance away it took some time for our platoon to reach them ,but they never moved.
It transpired that they were in fact British troops dressed up as Germans with orders to move quite openly about probably the most heavily defended part of England to see what happened.Until they reached me and Albert they had marched for several hours unchallenged !
What had they done to deserve this duty? For our part we were , of course , reprimanded for opening fire without orders ...
We were now meeting a different sort of N.C.O.and commissioned officer.Many of them had seen action ,as had older members of other ranks ,with M.N.B.D.O. In Crete,or with convoys in the Med and to Murmansk.
These officers tended to treat us as intelligent beings and we responded well, becoming better soldiers as a result.Discipline was still strict and punishment severe for what we considered to be quite minor offences.
A favourite ploy of one officer ( guess which one !) Was to wait outside a hut ,entering as the last note of reveille was dying on the air - and book anyone not out of bed.As with all things military there had to be a definition of "out of bed" .I discovered what this was when I protested my innocence at "Defaulters" ( another first for yours truly - sadly not the last.) .I had been sitting on the bed ,completely out of the blankets ,yawning ,stretching and scratching those parts in need of scratching .However one of my feet was not quite in contact with the floor - hence I was not deemed to be officially "out of bed."
Having listened to my protestations with interest the Company Commander in his wisdom awarded me several hours extra drill - some for the actual offence and some for presuming to argue.Extra drill was equally unpopular with the NCO detailed to take it as with those being punished and their resentment was reflected in the manner of their handling the situation.
There was one Sergeant though who actually enjoyed taking extra drill and delighted in finding ways to make an already hard time even more painful.One of his pet variations was to march the troops up and down carrying their own rifles before them vertically with the carrying arm bent at the elbow.The owner of the first forearm to droop below the horizontal could expect a bonus of extra drill.
Nonetheless for the mosr part we were well treated ,maturing both physically and mentally and - on reflection -even the harsher aspects of the regime probably did us more good than harm.
There were many enjoyable times with the Siege Regiment during that summer of 1943.One such time was when we were required to exchange places with a troop from "B" battery and for about a month we manned one of the Railway guns.The living accommodation consisted of converted goods wagons sleeping 8 in two tiered bunks.These were very comfortable with large sliding doors which we often left open during the warm nights .Each wagon had a cast iron stove in the centre which was marvellous for "fry - ups".Fried mushrooms ,eaten at first light ,within half an hour of them being gathered from the dewy fields surrounding us and with the morning sun beaming in through the wide open doors is a delight that stays with me to this day.
The guns themselves spent their nights in a nearby tunnel , being moved out daily by small diesel shunting engines.Each gun had its own engine and ammunition wagon - this latter being positioned between the engine and the gun.Gun drill consisted of pushing the gun onto a railway spur - a semi circular track ending in buffers.There were several of these spurs in the area ,marked out in degrees.The gun had a large brass arrow fixed centrally to its bogies and the engine would maneouvre the gun until the arrow was on its specified bearing.Having been trained ,the gun now had to be loaded from the ammunition wagon via a loading tray running from a hatch in the wagon to the open breach.The whole assemblage of gun ,engine and ammunition wagon weighed several hundred tons ,the gun alone required no less than 16 bogies.
Unlike the emplaced battery the railway battery had no power to assist in the loading process.Thus the 1250lb shell had to be rammed home by muscle power alone.This took 8 of us and one very large ramrod.In order that the gun could be elevated the barrel had to be sufficiently high above the sleepers to permit the breech to sink into it's well and allow for recoil.This meant that the loading platform on which the loaders stood was high above the tracks.On the platform were "hook in " guard rails one on each side of the loading tray at the breechward end.The purpose of these being to stop any loaders falling into the breech well while ramming.Picture the scene - 8 extremely fit 18 year olds positioned alternately either side of the loading tray firmly gripping the ramrod behind a 1250lb projectile which has to be propelled 8 or 10 feet along a highly polished tray into the breech.The forward movement of the loading crew would be halted by the shell's driving band becoming engaged in the rifling of the barrel.Experience taught us that this happened about 6 inches after the leading loader's abdomen had become engaged in the guard rail .Because of this after each round the leader changed .That way we shared the bruises !
As with our own guns , we never fired a shot in anger .We did however once carry out a shoot with the experimental gun "Bruce".
The sleeved barrel of "Bruce" was spirally grooved and the shells had matching bands on them.As a result of this the shells had to be literally screwed into the barrel with a ramrod rather like a huge screwdriver.Firing down Channel we were told that a range in excess of 70 miles was achieved .
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