- Contributed by
- DOUGLAS ROTHERY
- People in story:
- Douglas Rothery
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 March 2004
Chapter VIII - Monty Takes Centre Stage
On the move once again, this time to Thetford Norfolk our Company Commander Sir Hugh Chomley's home ground, where we were billeted once again in Nissan huts situated in a wood. During this period, for a break from our usual training, we were to spend a couple of weeks on an airfield at Lee-on-Solent training the R.A.F. regiment, not only in drill, but mainly tactics in defending the airfield in the event of an invasion. We were also granted permission to go up in aircraft as long as we signed to that effect. The pilots seemed to be of every nationality except British, and apparently had the reputation of being erractic, such as forgetting to lower their wheels when landing etc. The next day came my big chance, I was introduced to the pilot, whom I believe was Polish and the aircraft was a 2 seater open cockpit Beaufighter. I was fitted out with flying suit, helmet and goggles, there was a large steel hook already fixed to the harness on my chest for the parachute which was carried on the lap and to be clipped on in an emergency. When I got in behind the pilot, an 'Erk' connected the quick release strap from my harness at the back to the floor. A machine gun was mounted for me to use if required and with everything in order 'Biggles' was ready to 'Reach for the sky'. We took off in beautiful sunshine and flew over the sea following the Portsmouth coastline and everything couldn't have been better, until he started the manoeuvres for which he was up there for, namely, to practice dive bombing. He would climb to a certain height, then down we would go, pulling me out of the seat, (now I know what the quick release strap was for) and then being pushed hard back into the seat as we climbed back up into the sky. He would turn to repeat this operation over and over again and each time he turned I got a lung full of diesel fumes. Around, down and up, for about what seemed 1/2hr, whereby by this time my stomach was also going around down and up. Was I bad, never again! (Never Volunteer: etc.etc.) The pilot turned and pointed to the wing, pieces of the fabric was coming adrift so he turned to base, otherwise we both would have been down, then up? As for me I was in a couldn't care less attitude, even if the wings were dropping off. When we landed I couldn't get out, until a Erk came and disconnected the quick release strap. It was a good job I didn't have cause to bale out, or bale out the cockpit afterwards.
Whilst at this Base, one of my Section was asking if anyone could cut hair and I convinced him that it was my trade before I joined up. He sat in a chair and I put a towel around his neck, then with a pair of scissors I started to operate. I got half way through and in trying to eliminate the steps, the hair got shorter and shorter and the steps seemed to get bigger and bigger. Tears were rolling down my cheeks and my hand was shaking as I rocked with stifled laughter, and it didn't help when he asked 'How is it getting along?' I was so choked I couldn't answer him. He seemed to take it quite well afterwards even when taunted by his mates, perhaps me being an N.C.O. has its advantages.
Our huts were on the opposite side of the airfield to the R.A.F. base gate, but on returning one night at about 23:00hrs I decided to take a short cut across the centre of the airfield. It was pitch black so direction was by guesswork. When I had reached approx: half way the air raid siren sounded. Now stranded in the middle of an airfield in total darkness is rather daunting to say the least at the best of times, but with an air raid pending, and no cover, you can tell how I felt. Searchlights were now panning the sky some distance behind me, and after looking back at them I lost all sense of direction, but kept on going as fast as I could on auto pilot, and when the bombs began to fall in the Portsmouth area I changed gear to Providence, miraculously reaching my billet just as the all clear sounded. .Before we left Pompey,the Home Guard were to score their first casualty of the war I imagine at my expense when during a short exercise for their benefit, we were demonstrating ( In daylight) a method of escaping the enemies sentry challenge during darkness. When I approached their Section to explain about what was to happen, the excitement was too much for one of them because he suddenly lunged at me with his fixed bayonet slightly penetrating my left wrist which then required 4 stitches, the poor chap nearly suffered a nervous breakdown. 'Don't Panic' 'Don't 'Panic'..
On returning to Thetford we had to pay the penalty for a bit of tomfoolery which took place in a hut next to mine, so I was unaware of anything untoward taking place until our Platoon had assembled outside for a 20mile route march. Smoke was pouring out from under the closed door of the neighbouring hut because someone had set off a smoke canister. After a short inquest as to the culprit, where no one owned up, we completed the route march, and on return were once again interrogated, this time by the Adjutant. On getting no response we were sent out again, including the Officers for another 10 mile route march whereupon on returning with no response once again, we were all put in open arrest for 2 weeks. Incidentally we were very suspicious of the prankster from the outset, which was to be confirmed by the men later. He was an Oxford man, an Alfred Waters, whom I was to meet up with again after the war where after taking over my Section, when I was indisposed, he then himself being subsequently wounded, was eventually to take over as Landlord of the Fox Public House in Headington Oxford. Apparently the idea was, because Sergeant Parker in charge of that particular hut wasn't very popular to say the least, and being away on a 2 weeks course was due back whilst we were out on the march, and Alf hadn't anticipated the smoke escaping, thus hoping the Sergeant would reap the full benefit of his affections on his return.
At a P.T. session, the P.T.I. threw a pair of boxing gloves at the unsuspecting pair, (the same old ruse), he was after mugs to represent the Company in the annual battalion blood bath. I was one of those mugs to qualify (big deal), in the Middleweight class, 11 stone 6lbs and it was to be 3 rounds 2 minutes each round. On the big day I somehow managed to reach the final after beating four contestants. That same evening in the final who should be in my corner to help mop up my blood was my so called mate Fred Bottom who fought in the heavy weight class so was familiar with a bit of mauling and he tried very hard between rounds to convince me that I wasn't being hurt and before I had time to disagree, would push me out for another hiding. Afterwards for my PAINS he helped me to squander my losing purse of (7/-) 35p N.A.A.F.I. voucher. (Does that class me as a professional)?
Our next move was up North to Oswaldkirk, a village close to Ampleforth college. I wasn't there long before I was sent onto a Driver Maintenance course in Keswick, with another N.C.O. from another Company who was on a motorcycle course. On my first outing, the mountain track on Skiddaw was covered in ice and very precarious and only just wide enough to drive along, the trees on either side looked as big as matchsticks hundreds of feet below, and on one occasion we had to stop for an hour because of low cloud, when it had cleared we were about 20ft from a sheer drop.
As part of the training each would have to drive a jeep down an extremely, and I emphasise extremely, steep incline on this mountain range. It was so steep and dangerous only the driver along with an instructor were allowed to descend together at the same time, emphasising that you must keep the vehicle straight at all times otherwise the back of the vehicle could swing around and turn the vehicle over. I set off with the instructor sitting in the passengers seat with his legs dangling outside, ready to bale out in case of emergency, this did nothing to instil confidence and when we approached to the edge of the incline, it was like looking over a cliff. The instructions were , 'You put it into bottom gear, keep your feet well away from the pedals and just let the weight of the vehicle take you down'. Away we went, so far so good, but then we started to go faster and faster, the engine was screaming, so much so that the instructor shouted in panic, 'Feather the brake', Feather the brake!', but when my size 11's touched the brake it also touched the accelerator and we shot to the bottom like a rocket. He was still with me, I believe the force of gravity glued him to the seat, but the colour had drained from his cheeks and for a second or two he was speechless, then when I explained my predicament, he broke into hystrical chuckles and although I believe my explanation was accepted, he did'nt ask for a re-run?..
I thought our course was tough but watching the Bren Gun Carriers on their course having to rock their vehicle on an overhang and then literally drop into a quarry with gravel at the bottom, was not my cup of tea.
The motor cyclist on his course broke his ankle.
All of the N.C.O.'s of the battalion were now taking day courses with the Royal Engineers to learn more about explosives and mine clearing. I imagine with the antics some got up to, such as secretly doubling up demolition explosives etc. the R.E's were glad to see the back of us.
Section leaders such as ourselves were issued with Tommy guns, but after a comparatively short while these were withdrawn, not only because of its firing inaccuracy when on automatic, but also the heavy cumbersome ammunition and magazines. They were to be replaced with the Sten gun.
A Snipers course at Woolacombe was followed by a 3inch Mortar course at Netheravon, which was marred by a tragic accident. It was our Sections turn to go on observation and we had gone forward by transport for about 400yds when we received a call by radio that there had been an accident on the mortar. We returned immediately to find that a mortar bomb had exploded in the barrel killing 4 trainees and the Instructor. Firing was postponed for the day whilst the remaining batch of bombs were returned for investigation, none were too keen to do the firing part of the course after that.
On return to Oswaldkirk, we continued with our normal training, cross country runs and competitions, where everyone took part, regardless of rank or status and I can say without fear of contradiction, that we were very fit and were to prove that point when we participated in a very enjoyable sports day on the sports ground of Ampleforth college, where I was in the winning team of a one mile race, (although I was still suffering from a hangover from a drinking session the night before). The day also included an open day for the benefit or otherwise of the students of the college, where we put on a display and explained the intricacies of our weapons and vehicles.
We were still doing our best to bump ourselves off before we were to meet the enemy proper, for, on another exercise my Section was taking part in attacking a position with the support of our 3inch Mortars firing over our heads when a few dropped short with the excuse that the tails of the bombs had come off, a little closer and our tails would have been off. When we advanced closer to the target I got my Section down and gave the order for rapid fire from our own 2inch Mortar. I was standing behind a tree directing fire and the No 2, who loads the Mortar, inadvertently during the course of the firing went to place a bomb in whilst one was coming out. It hit his wrist practically severing his hand, which deflected the bomb vertically into the air and in landing exploded among us. The others in the Section were only slightly wounded, but I, who was standing got away with it. I dressed the No 2's hand with part of my shirt and we were to learn later that they were able to save his hand, (no he didn't suffer blood poisoning).
Another peacetime comrade whom I spoke of earlier, Shoppo Hughes, was killed whilst on a Commando course. He had to cross a river by swimming under water and explosives were set off as an added obstacle resulting in him being concussed. I, along with six others of his mates, including Fred Bottom, had the awesome task of going to Morpeth, his home town to carry his coffin. He was married with a baby boy.
A word about our vehicle, (all were taught to drive incidentally). Each Section of 7 men and a driver had their own American ' White' armoured plated L.H. drive International Half track. This was an open topped vehicle with a door at the rear, approx: 1/2inch armour plating in front, with a visor for driver and one for the passenger, also an armour plated visor in the front of the engine which could be closed by the driver in an emergency. The sides and rear were protected by about a 1/4inch plating, the floor also, which we covered with filled sandbags as an added protection against landmines. Bullet proof wheels in the front, with the back half on tracks. A very powerful engine and was quite capable of 70mph on the road with a low geared gearbox for cross country work. One vehicle in four had a wire winch in the front which worked off the engine. Each Section was independent and carried enough rations and ammunition to keep going for at least a fortnight and we kept the same vehicle all of the time. Our role was that we would spearhead an attack by racing through enemy lines ignoring rifle fire and to keep going until stopped, or objective reached, you were then to hold those positions until your advancing troops, you pray, arrived.
Had a fortnight's leave, which naturally for me didn't go without incident as usual. Railway stations were the most depressing places on earth, more so in the winter or in the dark. There was no heating in the waiting rooms and everywhere was in darkness, with a few shaded lights on the stations. The carriages were equally uninviting with a small slot in the blacked out windows to peer out to check your station, relying mostly on the Porter shouting out the name of the stations. I woke up at one point and heard him shouting out Leamington Spa, so I thought to myself, next stop Oxford. The irony of it was, on falling asleep I had lost my sense of direction as we had already passed through Oxford, so I ended up at Snowhill Birmingham. There were no more trains back to Oxford until the 6am milk train next morning. I don't know which was the worse the journey back with the clanging of the milk churns when they stopped to unload them at every junction and station, or the overnight freezing waiting room at Snow Hill.I got home at 1pm the next day.
It always intrigued me how my mother managed to work wonders with the rationing. I would find bags of sugar (always in short supply) secretly stored away on the top shelf of the larder along with a dozen or so Christmas puddings, which she would have made some months beforehand and although it was against the law to hold more than a certain amount of coal, which was also on ration, she would stock up the coal shed during the summer when it was more available. Also a 6ft x 4ft shed which she specifically obtained for this purpose erected behind the main shed out of eye sight. It was my task on coming home on a spot of leave, to reinforce the bulging sides of this shed to stop the black gold from spilling out, also to board up the window, not only to stop the coal from falling out but to stop prying eyes from looking in.
Soon after my return from leave we were to be on the move again, this time to Riddlesworth, Thetford, where preparations were now to take place in a more serious than pretence exercise. All of our vehicles were to undergo waterproofing with exhaust pipes extended about 2ft above the height of the vehicles thus enabling them to run through deep water in preparation for amphibious warfare, so in order to get us closer still to deeper waters, (in more ways than one), we moved to Hove Nr Brighton.
Taking up residence in some of the empty houses quite close to the sea front and being the time of the year when the peacetime beaches would have been thronging with holiday revellers, we were to present a poor alternative when an area of beach was cleared of barbed wire to enable us to have a swim. The battalion also had the opportunity to put in some anti-aircraft shooting practice when a target towed behind a aeroplane, flying about 500ft, dared to fly along the coastline for that purpose. The target was soon to be ripped to pieces by this large concentration of rifle and machine gun fire, so spare a thought for the pilot who must have been on punishment parade because he then had to turn back and run the gauntlet of another baptism of fire.
Next day on returning from a route march we were passing an aerodrome where perhaps our luckless shooting practice aircraft came from and chalked up in large letters outside an hanger, 'The Invasion Has Started'.
On arriving back we were paid out in French money, then on the insistence of Mr McEwan our Platoon officer, invited that evening to a very pleasant drinking session in the local. Next morning we were taken to a theatre, not for entertainment, but for a pep talk by 'Monty'. He was on the stage in front of a large map of Europe and part of his rhetoric was, 'We know where the respective units of the Reich are, their strength, morale, where their reinforcements are, and if they threaten to move out of these areas we shall bomb hell out of them, etc. etc.' All very stirring stuff and sounded very encouraging, especially among the younger elements who hadn't experienced any action before, so were raring to go hoping that there would be something left for them to mop up, and it wasn't to be long before their illusory thoughts were to be granted.
We set off next day in convoy in our respective vehicles and made our way to Tilbury docks. When we reached the dock gates it was obvious that the officers had not been so loyal as the men in keeping this move secret because they were being met by wives, girlfriends and the like.
Whilst awaiting in the dock area for our vehicles and equipment to be loaded, we were to witness two buzz bombs with the compliments of Hitler pass overhead from France. These were single winged pilot-less aircraft, guided by gyro with flames shooting out of its rear jet engine, making a pop pop popping noise like a moped and packed with explosives. After passing overhead the engine cut out and it was to fall indiscriminately somewhere in London.
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