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15 October 2014
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Else happened and I was in uniform. (Part 1)

by gloinf

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr Geoffrey Dent
Location of story: 
Coulsdon, Purley, Woodcote Green, Shrapnel Barracks, Woolwich, Yeovil, Dorset, France
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
20 July 2005

This story was submitted to the Peoples War site by Jas from Global Information Centre Eastbourne and has been added to the website on behalf of Mr Dent with his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions

I suppose it really all started after my 21 birthday in 1939 when I felt that I ought to do something about the impending war.

Ever since Neville Chamberlain came back from Munich waving that piece of paper and talking about “peace in our time” .

We were all being urged to get involved in civil defence — they wanted air raid wardens, first aiders, heavy rescue and fire service. I opted for the fire thing and duly presented myself at the fire station in Coulsdon.

I was confronted by a huge bum, which was encased in blue serge being stretched to the limits. Eventually it turned round to reveal a portly man with a very red face. “Cor” he said, “dropped a fag end down there. It wouldn’t do to set this place on fire.

What can I do for you?” I soon became auxiliary fire man no 306 of the Coulsdon and Purley Fire Brigade. We trained for two hours every Friday evening.

When I started they were half way through a two year course — which raises a certain question over the degree of urgency. By my first training session they had reached the use of a 24 horse power pump with the largest hose nozzle in use it took three men to control it.

I soon made up for the earlier sessions I had missed — and so the training went on. The in thing at the time was the ‘Fireman’s Lift’ — how to pick up an inert person from the floor and carry them out of the building.

I don’t think my back has been quite the same since. This nonsense continued until an enthusiastic instructor organised Firemen’s Lift races. This ridiculous game came to an end when one of the rescuers overlooked the fact that the victim’s head was in line with the door post when rushing out of the room!

The standard Home Office design ladders weighed 180 pounds — best part of two hundredweight — and an evening slinging the thing about and then rushing up and down it did wonders for muscle development.

I was greatly intrigued by the technicalities of pumping and the movement of water over longish distances. We were using canvas hose which when in use was wet and extremely heavy to manhandle.

It also created a fair amount of friction with the water passing through — that was a surprise to me — and this caused a loss of pressure at the nozzle end.

Thus we had to memorise the pressure loss for each length of hose and do a bit of mental arithmetic. It was quite possible that to provide a pressure of 60 pounds per square inch at the nozzle end, the pump would need to operate at 70 PSI or more.

I enjoyed this sort of thing; also learning the maintenance and running repairs to our trailer pumps. This involved dismantling, cleaning and reassembling the carburettor and magneto in the dark.

Whether they worked afterwards or not I don’t know!

September 1st — still 1939. When I got home from work that night, there was a message for me to call the fire station. I did and was told to report for full time
Duty immediately Germany been given an ultimatum to get out of Poland or else.

Else was about to happen. I got into uniform, kissed my mother goodbye, shook hands with my father and set off into an unknown future.

It was really quite an emotional moment; we just didn’t know how long the future would last. The drama was somewhat dimmed by the fact that I was back home next morning in time for breakfast.

At the fire station the previous evening we had been sorted into crews and divided among sub-stations that covered the whole area. This included Sanderstead. My group was assigned to a sub station near Woodcote Green — a very posh area — the building was in fact the chauffeur’s cottage — part of a fair sized property it had a large garage with living accommodation and was ideal for the job.

The garage was large enough to house our two appliances — an old Ford truck with a trailer pump and ladder which had to be started by hand unfortunately it had a wicked kick back. It was a very painful business getting the rotten thing started.

The other ‘appliance’ was a huge Austin limousine — the sort of thing that had little wall cases in the back for small bunches of flowers. I think it had a self-starter which was an improvement on No 1 vehicle. However, with the trailer pump held by a very insecure clamp, a ladder on top, three men plus two in front and a heap of hose and assorted ironmongery in the back, it was a touch overloaded.

In fact the only time I can remember turning out — it was for an exercise to see how quickly a large number of pumps could be assembled — we thumped down the kerb so hard that the tow hitch came apart and we had to retrieve the pump from someone’s front garden.

Fortunately the venue for all those pumps was Woodcote Green and as we only had a few yards to go we were there first and had time to clean off the mud and straighten the bent bits before the other pumps arrived.

I think this was the high spot in what was a very dull period as we didn’t attend any fires — they were dealt with by the local brigade.

Some time during the year I had registered for National Service and some time — probably October — I had to present myself for some sort of assessment.

Once again, a portly red faced person but this time it sported a hairy tweed jacket and plus fours.

“Ha” he said, “six foot eh! Fine fella you ought to be in the guards!” Not what I had in mind So I suggested that as I had been driving a fire appliance —bit of an overstatement — I would possibly be of use with something to do with transport.

“Cha” he said “Never get anywhere drivin’ a lorry. I’m thinking of yer futcha”.
So was I. The twit didn’t seem to have caught on to the fact that being called up for National Service was not the same as seeking a military career.

After a few apprehensive weeks the brown envelope arrived and much to my surprise I was told that I would be posted to 133 rd field ambulance and should report to Shrapnel Barracks, Woolwich on December 12 assumed I would be driving an ambulance and that seemed a much better idea than the Guards.

The glorious twelfth soon arrived and my father drove me to Shrapnel Barracks. My main recollection of my arrival was the sight of a soldier cleaning the small triangles around a hole in a broken window. “Why” I thought “doesn’t he just take out the bits”. I subsequently learnt that blind obedience was preferred to any degree of thought!

I just don’t remember how many of us gradually assembled in a rather bleak room there we got to know each other until packages of crude sandwiches were handed round and we were put on a train for Yeovil.

At Yeovil, Lorries took us to Beaminster where the members of 133 Field Ambulance, which turned out to be a territorial unit from Croydon, had gathered to give us a warm welcome — and presumably to see what sort of riff raff was being dumped on them.

We must have looked a pretty Scrappy lot fortunately, it was dark by now. I suppose food came into the operation somewhere along the line — I don’t remember.

After we had been herded down a country lane in to a disused water mill, we spent the night on straw palliasse on the stone flags of the mill floor.

I slept about as well as I did on my first night in the AFS.

Unlike Sept 1st we weren’t lying in wet. Clothes but it was colder — this was December.

We must have looked a pretty rag tag lot and it was, ages before we had any uniforms. The government boasted that every soldier would be provided with a greatcoat by Christmas and to achieve this they sought out all the men who had their own coat and hired it from them until a regulation one was issued.

Thus I was still parading in my own navy blue coat and being paid five shillings a week for its use! I soon found out that there was no question of driving an ambulance: medics didn’t drive — only the Service Corps did that.

We were stretcher bearers. We were subjected to a mix of marching up and down and all the stamping and stuff that went with it in the hope that one day we might look like soldiers and a series of lecture on anatomy and first aid.

In 1939 the British High Command seemed to be obsessed with trench warfare which was most of them had known in 1914-18 when one large body of men got out of their trench and advanced over open ground towards another trench occupied by men with machine guns the resulting casualties included a high proportion of shattered femurs.

This gave rise to the invention of the Thomas’ splint — a device which cradled the limb and enabled it to be stretched so that the broken bone was drawn apart to reduce the pain.

The army was as enthusiastic about this as the Fire Brigade had been about the fireman’s lift. In consequence we spent many hours rehearsing our skills and —just like old times — having Thomas splint races. I’m happy to say that I never had to use either the lift or the splint for real.

Christmas came and went. Apparently it was a tradition in the army that Christmas dinner is served to the men by the officers.

They don’t clear up afterwards and another chap and I were sent off in the back of a truck with a vast quantity of turkey bones for disposal in a local tip.

It was pretty rough country and at one stage the truck stopped dead and we were both flung into the heap of carcasses. This was a new experience for me and I learnt never to relax when riding in the back of an army truck.

At last the uniforms were handed out. As we now had head gear we were able to salute our officers — another new experience — and it called for careful vigilance in case we missed one.

My first day in uniform took the form of something called’ field day’ which involved travel to a soggy part of Dorset and manhandling stretchers over unlikely obstacles.

I made a mental note then not to be around when those acting as ‘patients’ were being nominated.

I was lucky with the boots and I found that a 10 medium fitted comfortably and suited me for years ahead. The body part was not so good: it consisted of trousers and a blouse type jacket but no braces.

I thought it a trifle odd until I noticed that the trousers had three buttons along the waist at the back which corresponded with button holes on the blouse part. I put the whole lot on and did up the buttons — hurrah, a simple one piece garment.

That is until I climbed over the back of the truck and felt all the buttons go at once. I spent the field day holding my trousers up with one hand.

The braces were issued soon afterwards.

We must be into 1940 by now and with uniforms we must have looked a bit more like soldiers. We had moved out of the watermill and were billeted with local people — a vast improvement.

We were fed in the Masonic Hall. Morning parade took place daily in the town square at 9am which we soon found out was 09 hundred hours. 09 ten would have been better as at 9 o’clock and the 12 and again at 3, the church clock plodded its way through a complete verse of ‘0 worship the King, All glorious above’ which somewhat obliterated the words of command that were directed at the serried ranks.

We drilled — we attended medical lectures — we marched quite long distances and carried stretchers during an extremely cold winter; so cold that so much ice formed on the telephone wires that many of them were brought down by the wind.

The ice around the wire appeared to be about ¾ to 1 inch in diameter.

Thus the weeks went by. I think one of the most ridiculous and bizarre things we were called upon to practice was a ceremonial drill which some one had devised for lifting a patient on to a stretcher : one of the most useless things I have ever been involved with.

It was also a matter of some discomfort to all concerned.

Some time in March we were sent on embarkation leave — things were getting serious. Later King George VI came and inspected his gallant troops.

Presumably he went round the whole division — it must have been terribly tedious for the poor chap; tramping up and down row upon row of troops with a great deal of saluting and handshakes.

It was pretty tedious for us too, standing in the pouring rain for a couple of hours waiting for the King’s blessing.
Then it came. All personnel were to parade even those who for the past few months had hidden in the stores, cookhouse, and office or had invented duties that kept them away from parades.

We were to assemble at 4 o’clock next morning — I think it was April 7 — with all our worldly possessions.

A very secret affair and not to be mentioned. It was so secret that most of the population of Beaminster were there to wave us goodbye.

I never heard ‘0 worship the King’ from the clock tower again.

That day we travelled to Cherbourg and than eastwards by tram. While our train was standing in Caen station it seems the locomotive was replaced; presumably there was some good reason.

However, for whatever reason, the replacement engine was backed on rather carelessly and telescoped the front part of the train. Much of impact was taken by empty cattle trucks but it caused quite a bit of damage to our coaches and most of us were lying about the place partly buried by some of our worldly goods.

I think our kitbags travelled separately. Just as well. One chap acquired a broken leg but I think that was the only casualty.

Eventually we were heading eastwards again. It was dark, very cold and had been a very long day. A little while later, just as we were settled after a fashion and one felt a bit drowsy, the train stopped.

We were then instructed to take our mess tins — a metal box about 8 inches by 4 which was used for all eating and drinking purposes and capable of maximum heat loss — to collect a drink of coffee.

This involved walking some distance up the track, having some brown liquid put into the mess tin and walking back down the track with the so-called coffee. Complete heat loss had been achieved and it was undoubtedly the most vile drink I have ever been given.

A kind and sensible act on someone’s part but I would have preferred to have remained in my state of semi consciousness There was, at least, a certain degree of animal heat in the compartment. I have absolutely no recollection of the rest of that journey or even of our final destination.

As we headed east some of the familiar place names from WW 1 became evident — Arras, Amiens etc, It served to remind one of our reason for being in France: a slightly spine chilling sensation.

We moved nearer to the Belgian frontier in small stages and I got involved in being part of an advance party that prepared each site for the main body so that when the others arrived we could direct them to which dilapidated barn they would occupy. Also the ablution arrangements etc.

Often this meant getting out our tin openers and converting petrol cans (rectangular affairs made from quite thin metal) into wash basins. It was more fun than being part of the herd.

Most of the places were nameless but Ligny sur Canche sticks in my mind as an ominous brown liquid poured out of the side of a cowshed and flowed down the main street.

My main memory is of Manchy Cayeux: a sizeable French chateau with a small river running though its grounds. Some of the chaps bathed in this river until the water was tested and the whole thing put firmly out of bounds.

One minor interlude took place on Ascension Day 1940, when a small group of worshippers had gathered in the Colonel’s office for a brief church service. As the holy ones left the room the ceiling fell down; I don’t suppose it was an act of God but I and another chap were detailed to shovel up all the plaster.

It made a nice Change filled in part of the day. Manchy was a comparatively settled period but we can’t have been there very long as it was only about a month since we left Beaminster.

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