- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Hugh Walker and others
- Location of story:
- Bexhill, Rugby, Western Approaches
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 December 2004
By Hugh Walker
When it started we were the last to know.
I was born in Burma in 1925 — my father was in the Indian Forest Service there. When he died of enteric fever my mother settled in Bexhill on the Sussex coast. We had been to church that Sunday morning in September 1939 and did not get home until 11,15 . The air raid warning went. My mother sent me across the road for find out if this was another practice. “No” was the answer. It was the real thing. Mr Chamberlain had broadcast to the nation just 15 minutes before. We were at war.
I took a shovel and went down to the sea front. I found a stack of empty sacks ready to be filled with sand. Several other boys were there and we set to, filling them. There are miles of golden sand at Bexhill but at high tide it was covered to a depth of several feet by the English Channel. We filled our bags with flint stones. A veteran of WW1 came by and had us empty them out again. “Don’t worry, lads,” he said. “The war will still be on when the tide goes out.”
I was at school at Rugby. That term I joined something called the Officers’ Training Corps. Our uniform was that of a private of WW1: khaki, with brass buttons which had to be brightly polished, and puttees wound round the leg. These had an annoying habit of coming undone on parade. A year later, after Dunkirk, we found this archaic uniform had disappeared. We were renamed the Junior Training Corps and given battledress. Our rifles which still had firing pins — due to disarmament between the wars many rifles had had them removed - had gone to reequip the army. We were also in the Home Guard which sounded much better that the earlier Local Defence Volunteers. I do no recall much of it beyond boring patrols. Fire-watching in the science laboratories brings back a mental picture of brewing cocoa on a Bunsen burner.
One day in May 1940 a young soldier came to the door of my mother’s Bexhill house. “I’m sorry”, he said. “You’ll have to move out — at least 15 miles inland. We are expecting Mr Hitler and we are the reception committee.” Bexhill became a ghost town overnight. Furniture was hurriedly housed in empty preparatory schools. We found refuge with a friend of the family who lived on the Kent/Sussex border.
During the long hot summer of 1940 I spent long hours with a WW1 telescope counting the German bombers coming over to bomb London. I became expert in distinguishing between Heinkels, Dorniers and Junkers with their escort of Messerschmidt 109s. From the opposite direction came our smaller number of Spitfires and Hurricanes and the dogfights would start. In the evenings we would go to a nearby army canteen where we served tea and sold cigarettes and listened to the stories of German bomber crews captured after they had been downed.
Someone lent me a shotgun and I learned to shoot rabbits and prepare them for the pot. Useful skills in time of war.
Back at school, on the night of 14-15 November we were turned out of bed and into the shelters when the German planes came over to bomb Coventry. Rugby is less than 20 miles distant and the glow in the sky was an awful sight.
On free school afternoons we were sent off in all directions to help on local farms. Usually the work was boring: hoeing mangel wurzels, picking potatoes. It was paid, though the pay was modest. In spite of rationing we had enough to eat. I can picture the microscopic butter and marg ration. I remember cycling all over the county one afternoon trying to buy some eggs. My haul: two eggs, one of which was from a pullet.
Thrilled by the Battle of Britain, I joined the Air Training Corps (third change of uniform) and we visited a local RAF station. In an Avro Anson I had my first flight. We bucketed round the sky on a training flight. I was desperately airsick to the point of being in the sickbay for two days on return. My housemaster visited and pronounced: “Infantry for you, young man!”
By now, though, I had seen Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve. Lord Louis Mountbatten as the captain of HMS “Kelly” was my hero. The government decided in 1943 on a scheme called “Y” Scheme entry. By this route it was possible to join the armed forces, get some training, and continue academic study at a university. I was required by the Admiralty to report to the porter’s lodge of Hertford College, Oxford on 5 October 1943.
The naval part of this strange but most enjoyable introduction to Armageddon consisted of one and a half days in a college boat house. Here we did bends and hitches, customs of the service, boat work (on the Thames or Isis) and square bashing. The academic three and a half days provided lectures by Tolkien, Ridley, Cecil, Coghill and C S Lewis.
All too soon it was over. A draft chit sent me to join a “stone frigate”, naval parlance for a shore station. HMS “Ganges” had been a boys’ training establishment but was now a boot camp for the likes of us. Two leading seamen were our mentors and gave us object lessons in leadership and teamwork which I never forgot. We slept in huts but at the end of our six week stay we were issued with hammocks for life afloat. A naval hammock is a simple affair: an oblong of canvas with eyelets at each end. To these are attached lines which are led to a ring. A rope at either end allows you to sling the hammock between two stanchions (uprights). The trick is to have the longer strings at the centre, the shorter at the sides to give it that deep enveloping contour. I made the mistake of reversing this order with the result that three times I fell out of bed before I realised my error. Land lubber!
HMS “Dauntless” was an old cruiser which had been spared from the breaker’s yard to provide a training ship for naval cadets like us. With two other ships it was known as the BEF (back every Friday). On Monday mornings for six weeks we left Rosyth and sailed down the Firth of Forth, plying up and down the coast. Various weapons of war were exercised though none was fired in anger. A courageous RAF pilot flew past with a drogue. We blazed away with Oerlikon and pompom. He signalled “Please tell the cadets I’m pulling this thing, not pushing it”.
On June 6 1944 as we holystoned the teak deck at 6 a.m. our captain came on the loudspeaker to tell us that at that moment the allied landings in Normandy were taking place.
After this six week learning experience we were posted to Brighton Swimming Baths which became for the duration of the war HMS “King Alfred”. This was the last hurdle on the road to a commission in the RNVR. Many are called but few are chosen was the pattern by this stage. Across the road from the baths tailors had set up shop. If you got through you changed your square rig of bell bottom trousers and blue serge jacket for the uniform of a temporary acting sub-lieutenant. If not, your new uniform was recycled and you continued to wear the square rig of an ordinary seaman, posted as such to the lower deck of a seagoing ship. I passed out with a commission. It was a proud moment. I had my fifth wartime uniform.
Shore training completed, I was posted to join an American-built frigate, HMS “Zanzibar” in Greenock in the Firth of Clyde. We formed part of Western Approaches Escort Group. My first experience was when we took two light carriers up the west coast of Scotland to Scapa Flow. As we rounded the Mull of Kintyre the full force of the Atlantic gale hit us. Given the job of cipher watch, I laboured to turn weather forecasts into plain English. In the process I became aware that seasickness is every bit is bad as airsickness. But never again did I experience it. I had got my sea-legs.
We worked out of the Clyde and the Mersey, escorting outward bound convoys half way to North America and bringing others back into UK ports. By this time, early 1945, the Battle of the Atlantic was won, though there were still U-boats about.. From time to time, as part of the convoy escort screen, we had an Asdic echo and would attack with a ten charge pattern of depth charges. Dramatic to watch, but it never produced more than a lot of dead fish. Coastal waters which had not been fished for six years were teeming with fish.
As an “officer under training” I was the lowest form of animal life. But those few months were wonderful ones for me. From a schoolboy at the beginning of the war I was in a small way involved in this conflict which had convulsed the whole world in the middle of the twentieth century.
On leave on 8 May 1945 I joined in the general rejoicing. VJ Day in August found me standing by my new ship, HMS “Cossack” being built on the Tyne to replace its illustrious predecessor of Altmark fame, to go out to fight the Japs. We became part of the Commonwealth occupying force instead. But that’s another story.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.