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Dungannon Boy goes to War - Chapter 1

by nolanjohnston

Contributed by 
People in story: 
George Nolan Johnston
Location of story: 
From Northern Ireland to Dover
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 October 2005

George Nolan Johnston

From his memoirs.

Most of my Belfast school friends had joined the Territorial Army, a great many of them had joined the 8th Belfast Heavy AA Regiment based at Dunmue, Antrim Road, Belfast. When War broke out on 3 April 1939 they were immediately called up, albeit to gun sites very close to their homes in Belfast. They were near enough to there homes to come to their mothers about one day per week, to get their washing done and depart with scones, cakes and the like. Reports were of poor Billy and poor Jack who simply did not fit their uniforms or, worse still, their boots. Not to mention the fact that, to a professional Army eye, they all wore their caps absolutely straight on their heads. I thought they had a great deal more brains than the professional soldier and, in the end, largely contributed to the downfall of Adolf Hitler and his mob.

I was released by the Ulster Bank, Dungannon on 14 June and for four days was a ‘free man’. I had volunteered for a mixed heavy/light AA Battery with regimental headquarters in the Antrim Road and on 18 June 1940, around the time that France fell, I presented myself for duty. On the gate of the large house standing in it’s own grounds, opposite Chichester Park, was a soldier with a large chin who challenged me as I approached. I told him I had come to join up, asked him what it was like, and he said that it wasn’t so bad, but the grub wasn’t great. I later discovered that he was one of the members of flute band from the Willowfield area, who had joined up on condition that they stayed together as a band. A promise that the Army promptly forgot.

From here I was sent to Clifton Street, where I signed on, was given a shilling, and put on a truck for Orangefield House. I was checked through there for Heavy AA and put in a truck for Tyrone House on the Malone Road. Headquarters of, so I was told, to my consternation, the Suicide Squad, ‘The Boffin Boys’. The only information I could get as to our role was that we dealt with dive-bombers. Which, as it turned out, was approximately true. But, especially compared with the role of Heavies, firing into the night at an unseen target at high altitude, was really great stuff. We had a small taste of it later, in Dover and again in Sicily. However, here I was, although I did not realise it at the time, in a very queer outfit.

The age limits were 29-65 years, “for the defence of Belfast”, and by God we had, oldies and young. We had a squad of hard old ‘chaws’ with ribbons from the last war complete with a crowd of secondary school youngsters, myself included, plus a squad of young working class. The most interesting, of course, were the 1914-18 boys, who were really very decent and likeable. Perhaps typical was one ‘Spivvy’ Bruce, who joined up at about 16 years of age and who’s father was an R.S.M. Spivvy was captured and a prisoner of war until he was released in 1918. On arriving back at his own side street home in Belfast, no one knew him; a stranger was in the house. It transpired that his mother had died when he was a P.O.W. and his father had been killed the day he was captured. He lost both sets of teeth over the side of the SS Tegleberg somewhere in the Atlantic on route to Cape Town and Egypt in 1943, and could only eat soft food from then on.

An endearing creature was definitely ‘Bonkers’, having sat outside the pay-parade, clad only in a loincloth (towel), he appeared outside the window of a dentists inspection room, naked (except for the towel) and brandishing a carving knife. He was sent to Holywood Barracks to see a psychiatrist. He distinguished himself by swapping battle-jackets with his escort, a bombardier, and arriving back at Tyrone House to report that, “they had kept the escort instead of me”.

During this period we manned gun sites around Belfast, mainly down by Duffen Road, where we manned Boins, Lewis guns and 3” Naval guns. The latter required the shell to be shoved up the breech using the fist. I recall one incident involving this type of weapon, when a South African sergeant, named Heinberg, having his eye blackened by looking down the barrel at the precise moment we shoved a ‘push-through’ down.

This was Boy Scout soldiering, we had a ghastly time sleeping in a tent one summer near the power station. Trucks nearly ran over us, the dust was dreadful; we really had neither food (half mile away), water nor sanitation. We had the same in Laine and later in Londonderry.

We left Belfast for Laine with excitation from our Sergeant Major. “We send you out with every confidence, you may be in action before dusk, we know that you are trained men, you will not fail”. There upon we were dispatched for Laine with all necessary equipment in four trucks. The first truck had all the food, the second truck had all the tents, the third truck was full of coal and the fourth truck contained four Lewis guns and ammunition. The expedition was accompanied by torrential rain that produced the wisecrack from a little Glasgow-guttie, safe in the back of a truck, to a Lieutenant on a motorbike alongside, “You would gine the Army sir”. Two detachments went to Laine.

Our detachment had the good fortune to be Truck 2, which gave us all the tents, and on a wet slope, above the bandstand in the prom, we set up one of these. We also had in our possession, our own blankets and groundsheets, all the Cornflakes and tinned milk for the whole expedition. We settled down for two or three days with wet clothes, but undercover. We ate Cornflakes and milk until they came out through our eyes. It was about three days before anyone found us.

We ended up having great fun at this site and had easily the most efficient gun-team in the Regiment. By a clever piece of war study we changed barrels in about 56 seconds against a Regiment record of about 1 minute 40 seconds. The secret was that I had about 3 enormously strong miners on my team, I could carry a gun barrel on my own, this is usually a four man job, and another chap who could lift the auto loader, another four man job, on his own. I claim credit for a subtle switch in gun drill, which suddenly changed a passive number 4 into an elephant in action. I achieved a massive breakthrough in the spell of gun-drill. Later, in Egypt, I produced a gun-team, which was at least 25% faster than anything in the Middle East. It was a trick in gun-drill of course, greatly enjoyed by the gun-team, but nevertheless would have worked even under fire.

But, now I need to tell you about the underarms of Rob Clelland to ensure that we had reasonably comfortable sanitation. Rob, was a Scottish countryman from Ayr who, in common with his countrymen was really very well read, an expert in draughts, and had an ingenious mind. In his civilian days he built what he called a “garden digger” powered by a motor-like engine and, I gather, went through a hedge. We were faced in Laine with a latrine, which consisted of a slit-trench and a hessian screen. The system was to squat at trench edge, at the risk, particularly when drunk, of falling in. Rob amended this by producing an ingenious seat, a hill of wood built much too high, onto which we clambered. The result was a highly amused face appearing above the hessian screen and an appropriate bomb-dropping whistle as each ‘turd’ dropped seven feet down to earth. The contraption was named ‘The Lysander' after a well-known Army Co-op plane. It made going to the toilet a most enjoyable and amusing experience.

We were, incidentally, in our early days in Laine, ‘fed’ by the local R.A. Coastal Battery. Their food was atrocious and we took their leavings. They were easily the worst treated mob I ever encountered. Not just their food but also their hours of duty, in what could be described as peaceful conditions, were outrageous. They manned a couple of antique 6” guns almost day and night. To add to their misery, they were pestered at night by snooping officers who dashed into their gun pits and howled for action. A long overdue revolt must have been imminent.

It came early one morning when a pip-squeak of an officer dashed into a gun pit, shouted, “Take post, Load, Fire”. He failed to mention that he meant a practise round, the roar of a 6” gun firing out to sea startled the good citizens of Laine, who up to then had not heard the sound of war. We never heard what happened to the noble gunner who stuck the live one up the breech, but if he were a good actor, he would have got away with it.

During this period we also had spell in Londonderry, and saw the arrival of the first Americans, who shambled over the bridge in rubber boots. The British Army marched with a sharp clip-clop; the Yanks shambled in rubber-soled boots.

Derry rapidly developed into a battleground between the Yanks and the Navy, coming ashore from a seven-week patrol in a cramped war ship. The Yanks took over the pubs, the Yanks took over the ‘dolls’, and we did not count. I was mainly stationed in a tent at Coleraine but we had occasional nights in town. We knocked pub doors down pleading for a drink; we toured the shops looking for a cigarette. Occasionally we managed to get drink and visited a dance hall. The number of back ally fights was very entertaining. Little Irish sailors knocking the daylights out of big Yanks, women screaming, all the fun of the fair.

We went over to England, I had been on two or three cruises there by that time. We arrived at Gillingham, Kent, to be trained for a mobile detachment. We were in tents and hence followed a series of mobile exercises to fit us, no doubt, for a mobile desert warfare or mobile invasion warfare.

There are two types of these units. Type one, was a vastly different proposition to type two, which I would loosely describe as ‘country lane’. Type one, which we never really encountered was compass stuff, while type two was really quite complicated and called for great skill in movement and handling a gun.

In Gillingham we went through several weeks of exercises involving map reading, on the Army grid, and dashing from A to B to take up gun positions. We really acquired a very good knowledge of this type of lark and spent several odd nights sleeping under trucks.

On one occasion, I fell asleep on a wet night in a ditch under a gas-cape and I was awoken by a healthy farm girl, pales in hand, who tripped over me.

From Gillingham we went on as Light AA Defence Unit to Dover in Kent, which at that time was the French Link. I recall standing up on the White Cliffs of Dover and observing with considerable apprehension the numerous shell-holes in the chalk. This was without doubt the Front Line. Jerry was across the Channel, we could, with binoculars, read the time on the clock in Calais.

The shelling across the stretch of water was a piece of the war in it’s own right. I didn’t know how the Jerries were fixed, with the whole of the German Empire to their rear but we, squatting in very nice wooden huts on our side, had quite a time of it. We were equipped with Bofus guns, poorly placed, and I myself had a quad-Lewis on a special stand, a wonderful weapon to let loose.

The general picture of the place was, the town of Dover itself, with all the children evacuated and peopled by the Navy, Anti-Aircraft Army and ATS. Not to mention, a number of heroic bar-maids who refused to duck even when the windows came in around them. The soldiers drank pints, the sailors, I know not what, but a batch of Norwegian sailors, wherever they came from, drank a mixture of one part whiskey, one part gin and one part rum. A dose, which by its extravagance was deeply resented by H.M. Navy. The soldiers were used to taking whatever was left and being thankful. We all danced in the Town hall in Dover where I moved smoothly in the arms of an ATS officer while shells exploded outside and her escorts’ moustache twitched in frustration. We ploughed on anyway; half drunk, up the hill to the cliff top sites and hoped that no one would put a shell through the wooden hut.

The viewpoint from LA3, cliff-top Dover, was superb. From here we could see Calais through binoculars. We even saw the trains in operation over there. We had a front-line seat in all the dogfights over the Channel, and in the rescue operations arising from them. In a very short time we were recognised by Fighter Control as the site with the best view of the Channel. It ended up that we often had the job, by direct telephone radio link with the Air Sea Rescue boys, of directing a craft into where the pilot, British or German, was afloat in his orange dinghy. It was really all a great game, if only more young men on both sides were not paying for the fun with their lives.

The air in Dover was electric, 24 hours per day. We were at any minute prepared to hear the news that Jerry commandos had landed below us. We had rumours that the Jerries had had a raid at St. Margaret’s Bay and had been beaten back into the sea, the whole story probably untrue. However, life went on.

Every now and then they produced from the heart of Britain a pair of great guns on a semi-circular railway track on the cliffs, they were named Winnie and the Sceneshifter. These great brutes puff-puffed their way into position behind a steam locomotive, and after about half-an-hour of preparation let loose with a mighty bang and flash a great projectile of unknown calibre. Having fired one great round they puff-puffed back into safety, behind the range of Jerry across the Channel. Ten or fifteen minutes later about ten Jerry guns, outraged at this intrusion of their siesta, opened up. We hurriedly deserted out wooden huts and dived for shelter in our small concrete bunker. The Coastal Battery made for the caves.

This was an exciting period; we were in a grandstand seat and saw some very encouraging sights. One evening the sky suddenly filled with Spitfires, all flying low, dozens of them, all on their way to shoot the boys on the other side. On another occasion dozens of Lancaster’s could be seen afar off, all on their way to bomb in Italy. In the meantime a Heinkel flew over every afternoon far above the range of our guns or unladen Spitfires, we lay on our backs on the cliffs and watched it through binoculars, but no one could reach it. At about 7pm a pair of 110’s flew in over Dover, shot down a couple of barrage balloons and left. Always out of range of our quad-Lewis and the Bofus sites. We asked to be allowed to set up a special post to catch them but this was refused.

No stay in Britain would be complete without the visit of Sergeant Smith and Sergeant Jones. Our field telephone would ring and our headquarters receptionist would announce, “Sgt Smith will be with you about 23:00 hours. LA1, LA2, LA3, LA4, LA5, etc.”. As our number was called we replied according to our nationality, “Aye”, “Bejig”, etc. If Jerry by some ingenious method was listening, he could certainly have been fooled more easily than the traditional British “Roger”. Sgt. Smith by the way meant that a convoy of ships at about 23:00 would steal through the Channel, unlighted, from Deal to Falkerstone, Sgt. Jones indicated a move in the opposite direction. At about 22:30 we stood by in the darkness manning all available hardware. We really felt a strong avuncular feeling to the fleet of little ships, often visible in the moonlight, which slid past without lights. We would have thrown anything at any Jerry who dared to touch them. In our spell in Dover they slipped past on numerous occasions without a problem. On one occasion however an inquisitive Beaufighter dived down to have a look, as he dived we could imagine every ships gunner, on deck or stuck in the top of his mast, swinging round into the night. Everything that would shoot in the convoy opened up with orange traces and obvious venom. We, the L.A.A. resisted, someone said it was a Beaufighter and his range was actually zero. Jerry awakened to this sudden outburst, they must have had a conference and, when the convoy was well past, opened up on the White Cliffs. The area was, once darkness fell, an artillery zone. Anything flying got shot at, friend or foe. As far as I know, we did not shoot down any friends.

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