- Contributed by
- People in story:
- NORMAN WOOD
- Location of story:
- Carlisle and other UK locations
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 October 2004
CALLED TO THE COLOURS
Part 1. Introduction to a new life
It was a cold, winter’s day in February 1943. I had received my calling-up papers notifying me that I had to report to 8 P.T.C. Beverley, East Yorkshire on the 18th of that month.
At that time I was living with my parents in married quarters at No.14 M.U. Royal Air Force located in Carlisle where my father was stationed as a Police Inspector.
Travelling across country by rail was always a difficult journey and in wartime it was even worse. After checking various available train times I decided to leave the previous evening and travel overnight, making a few changes, and arriving at Beverley on the morning of the 18th.
My age coincided with the day of the month. I was just 18 years old when I walked through the gates of 8 P.T.C. to spend the next four and a half years in the Army serving King and Country.
8 P.T.C. (Primary Training Corps) was located in the East Yorkshire Regiment barracks. The regimental barracks were imposing brick buildings whereas the P.T.C. was mainly composed of typical timber construction, single storey huts for barrack rooms, company offices, ablutions, stores and cookhouse etc.
I think the early arrivals, me included, were given breakfast, my first Army meal. I can’t remember what it was but typically it would be porridge, a slice of bread and rasher of bacon and a mug of tea. The tea was horrible but I later found that the NAAFI tea was even worse. (Something to stop one thinking of girls? — so it was said.)
Documentation followed and I was placed in 44 Platoon, ‘A’ Company. I received my AB 64 (Soldiers Service and Pay Book) and was taken to one of the barrack huts with the other early arrivals and allocated a bed. As we were first there we ha our choice and I had a single bed at the end of the room leaving the cramped double bunks for those coming in later. I think we were then more or less left to settle in and explore around the camp until everyone had arrived.
I was given a postcard to send home which was part printed :-
have arrived safely.
My address is:
8 P. T. C.
(Then a blank space to write a message)
Next day saw things starting to happen. We were marched to the clothing store where uniform and kit were thrown at us across the counter. It was said that if anything fitted properly you must be deformed. I remember receiving a pair of old boots, which were obviously second hand. They looked as though they had been soaking in water for months and the toes were turned up. (Probably rescued from Dunkirk.) I couldn’t possible wear them and was fortunately able to change them for a new pair.
We were marched to the dentist for a check. (I had to have some fillings later) and to the M.I. Room (Medical Inspection) for what was to become a regular occurrence throughout my army life. F.F.I. (Free From Infection). I will not describe what happened here. I will leave it to reader’s imagination. Of course any old soldiers will not need to imagine, they will well remember having to “Drop ‘em”.
Then came multiple inoculations and vaccinations following which we were given 48 hours excused duties to get over the suffering. But — during this time we had to blanco all our webbing equipment and dubbin our boots and generally get ourselves organised for the start of our training proper.
As well as the inevitable “Square Bashing” there followed six weeks of basic infantry training. Weapons taught and used were Rifle, Bren light machine gun and Grenades. With the rifle of course it was not only learning how to fire it. One had to know how to fix the bayonet and charge at straw filled dummies hanging on a wooden supporting structure whilst shouting and screaming all sorts of loving messages and maybe imagining it was not a dummy but your favourite N.C.O.
All that was the real purpose of the rifle. It also had a ceremonial side and many hours were spent on the square doing ‘rifle drill’ and trying not to knock the steel helmet off when ‘sloping arms’. For the Bren machine gun it was necessary to know how to strip it down and reassemble and this was done over and over to obtain speed, and then under a cover so that one could do it in the dark. There were also actions to learn to know what to do if the gun stopped firing.
I have a letter that I wrote home which mentions my training with the Bren. In it I say “ I would go anywhere with this gun”. How naïve can one be???
In my AB 64 (which I still have) a table shows that I became a first class shot with both rifle and Bren machine gun.
We had to dig foxholes, (I well remember doing this in the pouring rain in a sea of mud) and then fill them in again; take part in night exercises on Beverley Race Course where we would be crawling around nearly all night not having a clue as to what we wee supposed to be doing. Afterwards, when we arrived back at camp, there would be a steaming bucket of cocoa waiting for us. Lovely and warming, before collapsing into bed. The first time I experienced this hot cocoa treat I awoke in the morning to find a rash covering the whole of my body. ‘Going Sick’ in the Army was an ordeal that you had to be fit to undertake but needs must at the time. Fortunately, by the end of the day, the rash had cleared and I don’t think anyone knew what had caused it. But I knew…… I blamed the cocoa and never drank it again.
Various tests were also done. Running around the football field in a set time, listening to the Morse code and answering questions on it, various agility tests on the square and other funny things.
After six weeks an assessment of all the tests decided which regiment one would be posted to.
I was selected for the Royal Armoured Corps and the training, which was to come, made Beverley seem like heaven!
Part 2: Royal Armoured Corps Training Regiment
From the Preliminary Training Corps (P.T.C.) at Beverley those of us selected for posting to the Royal Armoured Corps found ourselves parading in full kit for marching to the railway station.
We travelled by train to Darling ton where we had to change and were waiting on the platform for what seemed like hours. At last we boarded a train, which I learnt was going to Penrith. (Wonderful, I thought at least I shall be nearer home.)
The train was pretty slow and stopped at various stations until we arrived at one, which had name boards marked ‘Barnard Castle’. Some NCOS appeared, walking up and down the platform, shouting, “Dismount” and ushered us, in the kindly way of NCOs, into the station yard. We all stood around with all our kit expecting some lorries to turn up for us.
Then a ramrod of a Sergeant appeared who sorted us out into various squads and we were fallen-in in three ranks, brought to attention, left turn, quick march. It must have been three of four miles to Deerbolt Camp, through the town, (“Smarten up, march to attention, all these people are watching you.”) The last half-mile was the worst, up hill all the way and the Sergeant shouting, “Dig your heels in.” He wasn’t carrying any kit but we knew that by now we were !
Deerbolt Camp was home to the 54th Training Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps. It was more modern with brick built, single storey barrack blocks arranged in cul-de-sacs by Squadron. I was put into 251 Squad, ‘B’ Squadron and marched to what would be my home for many months to come.
The barrack block had double bunks with slatted timber base and on this was a palliase which was filled with straw. (This was our first job). On the floor was thick brown lino, which was highly polished, two combustion stoves were supposed to heat the place but were never lit as this would spoil the black polished finish. The handles of the sweeping brushes and floor polishers had to be scrapped with razor blades until they were white.
Our webbing equipment, which we had blancoed green at the PTC had to be scrubbed and re-blancoed yellow! All brasses were highly polished and boots, which had been liberally dubbined, now had to be highly polished with toecaps and heels like a mirror. (What a job that was!) Beds had to be laid out to a strict pattern and all this closely inspected everyday by the Officer and Sergeant.
At least we did not have to parade for a shower as we had done previously and it was good to be able to go in the evening on ones own choosing. We did have to marc about everywhere else in camp though.
The first four weeks were devoted to drill, drill, drill and we would get to know every inch of that parade ground. During this time we were not allowed out of camp and spent most spare time ‘bulling up’ equipment and boots.
There was quite a good NAAFI in the camp, apart from the tea, and a cinema. On Saturday evening the gymnasium was used for dancing.
The days were spent with hours on the square. From simple foot drill (marching etc,) , knowing what was meant by ‘advancing’, ‘retiring’ and of course ‘left’ and ‘right’ and how ‘ruptured ducks’ marched; together with other choice N.C.O. expressions. Following on from this came rifle drill, sentry drill, drill with revolvers. (Can you imagine drill with revolvers?) All this was done in slow time — Guards style.
The Drill Sergeant in charge of the squad had been in the Scots Guards. (He was the ‘Ramrod’ I referred to who met us at the railway station.) He was a tall, really smart, regular soldier who put us through our paces. But ‘off parade’ he could be quite ‘human’.
Other activities we had to suffer were P.T., cross country runs, sessions in the gas chamber, assault courses, guard duty in the main camp and the tank park which was situated away from the camp. On Sunday there was a church parade for C of E religion. I was Methodist and did not have to parade but could go along if required. I would usually find myself on fatigues. Most times on hands and knees, with the regimental sergeant major overlooking to make sure his beloved floor was brought up to his required high polish condition.
A fatigue that one often had to suffer was in the cookhouse to peel a heap of potatoes piled on the floor. (Spud bashing) If ever ordered to “fall outside with your knife” we knew what was in store. Once I remember, instead of potatoes, there was a heap of onions. This was a real weepy.
The four weeks eventually came to and end and the squad had to perform a Passing-Out Parade in front of the Commanding Officer in our best battledress, yellow belt and gaiters and highly polished brasses and boots. A really smart ‘bulled up’ outfit looking nothing like the rag, tag and bobtail mob that had arrived there four weeks earlier.
After performing all our drills that we had been learning for so long the C.O. and R.S.M. walked round inspecting us to music played by the band of one of the Hussar Cavalry Regiments known as ‘The Cherry Pickers’.
We passed O.K. and the drill sergeant said we were the best squad he had ever had. I bet he said that to all his squads. I was now given my first home leave. Eight days from 23rd April to 30th April 1943. When I returned I would start my trade training.
Part 3 : 54th Training Regiment, R.A.C
I had been in the Army for ten long weeks. Six weeks at the P.T.E and four weeks at the 54th Training Regiment at Barnard Castle. Now I had been allowed eight day’s leave. It was April 1943.
In those days there was a railway line from Darlington to Penrith, and the train stopped at Barnard Castle. It was by no means an express service but it was a lovely scenic journey and I was going home.
The main line through Penrith was very busy with trains going north and eventually a train would stop. For the short distance to Carlisle one didn’t mind pushing into a cramped compartment or standing in the corridor or wherever one could find a little space. (The trains were always packed.)
During the war years Carlisle station was a crowded mass of people, most in uniform, and I recall the pedestrian bridge across the lines was often thronged with passengers either just arriving or leaving. It was a great feeling to walk out of the station, along English Street to the town hall to catch the Ribble service bus to Kingstown. From there I would walk past 15 E.F.T.S where the tiger Moth training aircraft would seem to skim over your head when landing, then past Parkhouse to my home at 14 M.U.
One of the most enjoyable things for me when on home leave was to be able to have a soak in the bath, although six inches was supposed to be the maximum depth of water to help the ‘war effort’.
What did one do on leave? It was nice of course being with my parents, sleeping in late in the morning and getting away from the army routine. I remember trying to look like a soldier when I visited the place where I worked not so many weeks earlier. The usual welcome when meeting anyone was, “Hello, on leave? When are you going back?” (I think they meant it in the nicest possible way.)
There was a N.A.A.F.I. in Rickergate in Carlisle and the ‘John Peel Hut’, which was located where the Civic Centre is now. Apart from these two places there wasn’t really very much to do except of course for the ‘Pictures’. Anyway the time seemed to fly past and very much sooner than I wished I was back again at Deerbolt Camp, Barnard Castle, settled in a different barrack block and about to start trade training.
This did not mean that the strict routine and all the ‘bull’ would stop. This carried on but anyway we were now getting used to it and feeling rather proud when we could dress and feel ‘smart’, as we were now allowed to go out of camp in our free time.
The guardroom was situated at the camp main entrance and a large full-length mirror was positioned here, which reflected one’s image when walking through. The purpose of this was to check that you were smartly dressed, that the beret was correctly positioned one inch above both eyes and that you hadn’t forgotten to put your trousers on!
From the guardroom there was always someone keeping a watchful eye and if anything suspect was seen it would bring forth a nice ‘polite’ call to return. It was always a relief to get through the gates without being called back.
Barnard castle was (and still is) a nice little town. It had of course a NAAFI and a couple of other canteens and plenty of ‘pubs’, if you had the money to spend, which wasn’t very often. There was only one cinema and that was rather small. The whole town was invaded by hundreds of troops in the evening and at weekends fro, as well as the 54th regiment it was also blessed with the 61st, located on the other side of the town.
‘Barney’, as we called the town, is situated by the river tees, which flows past the castle and Regimental Tank Park and on through lovely wooded countryside. When weather permitted it was good to walk for miles alongside the river and the high tree-lined banks. Sometimes I would see a train going over the viaduct on its way to Penrith and wish that I was on board.
However, back to my training, the tank on which I was to be trained had a crew of five comprising Commander, Wireless Operator, Gunner, Driver and Co-Driver. Each of the crew had to be able to take over the duties from another and was therefore trained for two positions in the tank. My trade training was for gunner/ mechanic, the two duties being Gunner and Co-Driver.
The first ten weeks was devoted to ‘Driving and Maintenance’ initially on 15cwt. Trucks. This involved not only driving but also all the mechanical theory and workshop practice. I see from my AB64 (Army Service Book) that I obtained Driver I.C. Class 111 with theory 77%.
From this I went on to driving a Bren gun carrier, which was the first of driving a tracked vehicle. Then came the main object, which this initial training was leading to - the Tank.
54th Trg. Regt. was at that time equipped with Crusade II and III Tanks. This was a medium Tank with a laden weight of 20 tons. It has a maximum road speed of 27.5 mph and fuel consumption of 1.5 mpg. Cross-country consumption was 1.1 mpg. It has a main petrol tank holding 110 gallons and an auxiliary petrol of 30 gallons.
Enough technical data. I thought it was a lovely Tank to drive. Cross-country at speed it could become slightly airborne when crossing a hump. It also had a nasty habit, on the road, of what was called ‘reverse-steering’.
Working on the Tanks could be very messy with oil, grease, petrol and mud. If you remember we had to have one pair of boots polished to a very high standard. When our work boots were due for repair, Oh Heartbreak, our best boots had to be worn and were exposed to all the perils of clambering in and around and under the Tank. Every night was spit and polish night until the work boots were returned.
My theory marking for the Crusader was 89%. Bit better than the truck!
About this time some American ‘Sherman’ Tanks began to arrive and similar training was done on those. For comparison with the Crusader these had a weight of 34.8 tons, maximum road speed 25 mph. The fuel consumption was pretty similar and petrol tank held 160 gallons.
This also was very easy Tank to drive, especially on the road. It has a 5-speed syncromesh gearbox - unheard of on British Tanks, which had ‘crash’ type, which necessitated double de-clutching.
My ‘Driving and Maintenance’ came to an end and I now had to start on my training in the ‘Gunnery School’.
Part 4 : Training Continues
I had completed ten weeks ‘Driving and Maintenance’ and now came a period Gunnery Training lasting five weeks.
As you would expect this covered the guns, which were mounted in the Tanks being training on, i.e. Crusader and Sherman. The main armament was mounted in the turret roof and smoke dischargers located at the rear of the Tank. To complete the list a Bren machine gun was housed in the turret for anti-aircraft use (whose a good shot then), and personal arms were Thompson or Sten sub machine guns and .38 Revolvers. The turret had to find room to house all the ammunition for this lot and of course the training covered every aspect.
The Sherman was similarly equipped but its main gun was a 75mm and the machine gun a Browning .3”.
Army life went on much the same every day. Reveille at 6:30am, cleaning and polishing the Barrack Room, making up the bunk and layout of equipment in the regulation way. March down to the Cookhouse for breakfast and get back to the Barrack Room, hopefully, in time for a few personal moments before assembly and on the square for first parade.
After this one would proceed to wherever the training was scheduled, lecture room or Tank Park. When working in the lecture rooms mid morning brought a NAAFI break, but before we could go for our ‘char and wad’ the square had miraculously become transformed into netball pitches and we had to make up teams and clatter about in our ammo boots ‘playing’ netball for fifteen minutes. There was then a mad rush to get to the NAAFI absolutely ‘shattered’.
This was supposed to overcome the effects of sitting in the classroom. It certainly gave one a thirst. Even the NAAFI tea seemed enjoyable after that!
Following a period learning about all the different types of ammunition and calibration of the main gun to the telescopic sight (for this we would line up the gun on a corner of the Castle tower, which was a convenient distance away) the time came to experience what it was like to actually fire the gun.
This was combined with a weekend when we climbed aboard a 3-ton truck with our ‘small kit’ and were taken up into the wilds of the Pennine moors for what was supposed to be a taste of ‘living rough’ and looking after ourselves.
I still do not know where we actually were but we found a bell tent erected for us (about ten of us) and rations to last for the weekend. Located conveniently nearby was a Daimler Armoured Car. A Sergeant Instructor from the Gunnery Wing met us and informed us that we would be firing the two-pounder gun mounted in the Armoured Car.
I can’t recall all the details of that stay but two things remain clearly in my mind.
Firstly, firing the gun. The turret on this vehicle was very cramped. The gun was elevated and depressed by the gunner who actually supported the breech end on his shoulder in a padded arm. Below the gun was a pistol type grip with which the right hand fired the gun. The target was sighted through a telescopic sight.
My memory goes back to sitting on the small round seat on the left of the gun and peering through the sight with my right eye to try and locate the target which was a timber and cnvas mock-up of an enemy Tank. Pulling the firing arm across to the left unlocked the gun mounting and the whole weight came onto my shoulder. I could then move the gun up and down to get on the target.
I squeezed the trigger, then there was a blinding flash in front of my eye and the gun recoil forced it down into my shoulder. When I recovered and looked through the telescope I couldn’t see a thing for dust and I hadn’t a clue where the shell had gone. After a few attempts one became aware of what to expect, but I’m glad that I never had to server as a gunner in one of those.
The other thin that remains clearly in my mind is the first night that we spent in the bell tent. You will no doubt be aware that this type of tent is circular and with a central support pole. Sleeping is arranged with feet to the pole.
After a tiring day we all managed to stumble around, get our groundsheets and blankets into some sort of order and express our opinions as to how lucky we were and soon were all well away.
A flash and heavy crash awoke me and I sat up and hit my head on the low tent roof. I had been told never to touch the inside of a tent when it is raining — now I knew why. The rain, it wasn’t just rain, it was lashing down, started to drip through. Worse was to come. We found, to our dismay that water was starting to run to through the tent. It soon became a rushing torrent and it wasn’t long before everything was soaking.
I don’t remember how, but we eventually found our way to a local village hall where we sheltered and tried to dry out. Next morning a truck came to rescue us, with a hot meal and I had my first taste of an army ‘Rum Ration’.
So, the training continued and eventually, at the end of the five-week period a visit was made to a real firing range, with real Tanks, at Hornsea on the Yorkshire coast. Here we went through an extensive period of firing all types of guns and all types of ammunition from stationary Tanks and Tanks on the move.
Between periods on the range I recall going into Hull with a Civilian lorry to collect loads of bricks and rubble from bombed areas to make hard standing for the Tanks at the firing areas. Army life can be very varied at times.
Now, my training was complete. I could take my place in a Tank crew as either a Gunner of Co-Driver, and it would not be long until I would have to pull it to the test ‘for real’!
Part 5 : Where do we go from here?
I had been in the Army from February to July 1943 and had managed to survive and complete my basic infantry training and now my Tank crew training.
On the 7th August 1943 I was granted 14 days Embarkation leave. (This was the Army way of recording the leave — Big Deal). Anyway it was great to get home for such a long break, but, all too soon I was back at the 54th Training Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps, at Barnard Castle.
The squad had been moved out of the Squadron lines and were re-housed in a barrack block remote from the new intakes of trainees. We seemed to be the ‘odd-job’ team without any particular regular duty and spent quite a lot of our time on guard duty or ‘fatigues’.
Came the time when we sensed that something was ‘up’. Kit inspection became a regular occurrence and everything was checked over and over to ensure we were fully kitted out. Also everything had to be stamped in black ink with ones’ service number. The numbers were about one inch high. I still have a boot brush on which can be seen my number.
The day cam when I was drafted to a Unit in Bedale, Yorkshire. This was a Nissan hutted camp in the grounds of Bedale Hall and the Hall itself was also used for some functions. Again, there was very little to do except for the incessant kit inspections. Apart from that it was all pretty easy going and I remember even frequenting the village barber for a morning shave.
It was the season for the potato harvest and a local farmer required some assistance so a few of us offered our services. Unfortunately for us there had been a rather heavy period of rain, which had turned the field into a muddy morass. We were provided with a ‘meal’ of a corned beef sandwich on ‘National’ bread and for the day we given two shillings and six pence (12.5 pence).
On the 19th October 1943 I was given another embarkation leave of seven days and early November of that year saw the actual embarkation move begin.
We left Bedale at night loaded up with full kit and were taken to a remote and lonely railway station to await a train. I didn’t know where we were, it was pitch black and remember the ‘Black out’ was in force and station names if not removed to confuse the parachutists, were not always known. It was very cold, the platform was packed with soldiers, fed up and far from home, waiting to be transported to some unknown destination, for an unknown period of time and maybe never to return!
A whistle was heard and looking down the line a glow from the locos’ firebox could be seen. Good! We will soon be on board, maybe with a little warmth. But no! The train showed no sign of stopping and it roared past the platform and away into the night. When the surprise lessened, comments could be heard, like ‘You naughty train’, ‘That driver wants kissing’, ‘Oh dear’ and similar phrases.
We were now isolated on this lonely station platform, but fortunately there was at least one sensible office in charge who located a church hall which was opened for us to spend the night on pews or floor or anywhere out of the cold.
It was a long and uncomfortable night but morning a welcome mug of tea and a sandwich from somewhere and we later found ourselves back on the railway platform. It was a cloudy, drizzly day and as we stamped our feet to try to keep warm we hoped that this time the train would stop.
Thankfully it did and we all packed in, divested our kit, found room for it all, with difficulty, on the luggage racks and in the corridor, probably lita fag and relaxed on a seat wondering where we were going?
It was soon established that we were travelling north and the long slow climb up Shap left no doubt. We passed through Penrith station and thoughts filled my mind of the times I had waited here to catch a train when going home on leave. These thoughts expanded as the train slowed down to enter Carlisle station. It didn’t stop, slowly carried on over the river Eden bridge and then picked up speed again. I was looking through the window as we cleared Parkhouse bridge and there, just a short distance up the road, was my home. If ever I felt homesick it was at that moment. I didn’t know it at the time but I wouldn’t see Carlisle or my home again for three long years.
There was only one sure destination for us now — Glasgow. We lined up in the road outside the station and marched across the City to board another train to take use down the river to Gourock.
Offshore could be seen a large ship at anchor. It was a troopship with the name H.M.T. Cameronian. From the station landing stage we were ferried out by Tender and boarded the ship by means of a steel stairway slung over the side. When wearing full kit and with a kit bag thrown over the shoulders it could be rather scarry.
When safely on board we were swallowed up below in the mess decks to settle in, find our sea legs and wonder, ‘Where do we go from here?’
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