- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mr Geoffrey Dent
- Location of story:
- Castleford, Womersley, Pontefract, Catsfield, Bexhill, Normanhurst, Battle, Tunbridge Wells, Sussex.
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 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
Suddenly the room filled with people and our hostess announced “I’ve brought neighbours in ter hev a looka cher.
They’ve never seen anyone from down’t south be fower.” Phil looked at me and said “pity we haven’t got two heads each — they’d be more impressed.”
And so to,’ Coronation Street’ — rows of dreary houses.
We had the names and addresses of those who had offered hospitality. We had to check our numbers and arrange payment etc.
I think our progress was closely monitored from behind lace curtains because at one house our officer - I think it was Captain Sharpe — our dentist, was still holding the knocker when the door opened and left the knocker in his hand.
I consider that the Captain handled the situation with great aplomb: he simply handed the surprised woman the knocker and said “I think this is probably yours madam”.
I don’t remember how long we stayed in Castleford — probably not very long but I do remember the morning parades. We assembled on a piece of very rough waste ground
— Not really suitable for crisp drill movements but that didn’t matter much.
The silliest feature of the place was the effect of the glass works. Every morning we would set off for the waste ground with our newly polished buttons and cap badges shining brightly but it was to no avail because by the time we were on parade, the brass work had turned to various shades of brown and green.
I hate to think what the local peoples’ lungs were like.
Next was to Womersley between Pontefract and Doncaster. A pleasant little village.
Some time about now, I was placed on the second rung of the promotion ladder Having leap froged the first rung. I became a full corporal (two stripes) and had charge of 32 stretcher bearers, in eight squads of four, only they hadn’t turned up yet.
The field Ambulance occupied Womersley Hall; sometime, no doubt, a stately home. It was built like a large letter H. The larger part was built round a courtyard and looked out over parkland.
The other half was the stable yard where we “messed”. The rectangles were separated by a wall with an archway with a corridor above (the bar of the H) connecting two sides of the building.
The bugler who blew reveille every morning was instructed to blow it in both quadrangles. This he achieved by opening a window on one side of the corridor, having his blow then transferring his position to a window on the other side.
This method also saved the bother of getting dressed first. More than somewhat unconventional, but it worked. It was here that the unit was made up to strength with a new intake of call ups.
Being conscious of my new responsibilities, I thought I’d better start by learning their names. “What’s your name?” I said to one of them. “Charlie, what’s yours?” came the reply. Not what I was expecting but we got on well enough.
It was my first brush with an east ender, a new experience for me. There was a small bunch of them and once we got to know each other they became the nucleus of a loyal and damn good team.
Some months later when we were down Canterbury way I got Charlie to take part in game of rugby.
At halftime I said to him “How’s it going Gus?” (That really was his name). The reply “I got me eye on wunner two ov’vem” was typical.
Most of our time was spent marching, drilling and being instructed in medical matters; the new boys settled in and we began to feel that we were turning into a pretty useful bunch.
Ted and I acquired a couple of bicycles (each) and Ted being a company clerk was well placed to get our company officer to sign permanent passes for us to be absent “any day after duty for the purpose of cycling exercise”. The original is in the family archives.
This enabled us to get out and about as we liked and as Pontefract was not far away we were soon exploring its delights. One of the odder jobs came our way when Ted and I with three or four of the chaps were sent to a nearby village to make sure the London authorities didn’t take over the village hall for refugees from the London blitz.
It seems the military authorities had already requisitioned the building and weren’t prepared to be deprived of their rich pickings. I can’t imagine why the military were so keen on the place, but no matter: Ted and I spent our days watching for refugees and occasionally spending a little while in the hall and, of course, riding about the district on our bicycles.
The other chaps found employment (paid) with a local farmer “knuckling” potatoes. A pleasant lifestyle while it lasted. We were all billeted in the village, Ted and I with an elderly couple who also had a lodger who occupied a screened off part of our room.
We only met him to speak to once, normally he was in bed when we left in the morning and would come in quite late after we were tucked up. We’d hear him clumping up the stairs into the room then “Broomp — thump” and he was in bed.
He presumably slept with his boots on.
Our host was a ready wit, although somewhat repetitive. When we came home in the evening he would invariably say “Ah knows — tha’s bin t’t knottingly t’t see crystal fairies”. We only went to see knottingly once and fairies there were none — crystal or otherwise.
He would try to entertain us with stories of a sort always heralded by “now ah’ll thee a mookie ‘un”. He would then pod through a pointless spiel replacing the objectionable bits with “tha knows” and winking, so as not to offend his wife who, I would assume, was quite immune to anything he said even if she bothered to listen.
He would then go through the whole thing again putting the original words back in case we had missed any of this literary gems.
On Sunday mornings we were treated to a visit from their three or four year old grandson, the old codger would suddenly say to the child “tha’s a bugger”- “Ah Bay” — “Tha be” — “Ah bay” — “Tha be” — “Tha’s a booger thesel” and so it would go on.
Anyway, this rustic idyll came to an end. We were on the move. Advance party again for me. I remember stopping off for lunch in Oxford. On hanging some of my clutter on the coat and hat stand in a rather pleasant little café and it started to fall over.
I managed to retrieve the situation and all was well. The journey ended in Catsfield. A house called Tilton (it is still there on the road from Ninfield to Catsfield). It was our HQ where we fed and paraded and attended lectures on medical matters.
We slept in a couple of empty houses opposite with a Nissen hut behind them. On one occasion our resident sleep walker hurtled the length of the Nissen hut avoiding the two slow combustion stoves that heated the place, through the front garden and into one of the houses and up to the bed of one of his — then — sleeping colleagues.
It was a remarkable achievement as those stoves were an absolute menace even in daylight and when you knew what you were doing. He tried and encore later, but you’ll have to wait a couple of years for that.
For the rest of 1940 we practised our various skills, if any, such as map reading, the Thomas splint (see 1939), and the tempkin position, a strange way of lying down designed by one of our MOs, to minimise injuries caused by bomb or shell splinters or anything else.
It required one hand on the neck the other over the liver if you could remember where it was and the legs separated instead of one above the other. It was a all quite logical but not the sort of thing that came naturally when the shit began to fly. We of course, kept fit by marching long distances through the Sussex countryside.
On New Years Eve it starting snowing and we opened the door on 1941 to a landscape covered in several inches of snow.
1941 brought a very real threat of invasion and things really were serious. Part of high commands policy was the constant movement of troops to keep one jump ahead of German intelligence so that they never really knew where the defences were either strong or weak.
I think the ploy was successful but it meant that I now have many memories of places and situations but very little idea of sequence or time. In fact place names didn’t really matter: all sign posts had been removed together with anything else such as shop and pub names so that any spy that was dropped would have problems.
We were at Catsfield for some time and Ted and I still have our bikes so we were able to get out a bit. Like all snow the 1941 welcome fall soon turned into deep slush and having on one occasion walked into Battle (the town) we were going along upper lake where the pavement rises until it is a couple of feet or more above the road.
There is a rail around it now but not then, and in the dusk with no street lights I suddenly realised I was on my own. A quick look back revealed Ted lying speechless in a very deep snow drift.
Ted soon regained his power of speech. About now, we were reminded of the reason for us being here. I was taken, with my gallant crew of stretcher bearers, to an in sanitary air raid shelter in Upper Sea Road, Bexhill and told that this was to be our base in the event of an invasion.
Eventually a demi God arrived and leading me to the middle of the road and pointing south said “You see “Corporal, the fighting will take place on the promenade. As and when casualties occur, you will send down and bring them back her to Catsfield.”
Even after the events leading up to the evacuation of Dunkirk and Narvik, the military thinking was still based on trench warfare. I couldn’t believe any fighting would remain static and hoped it would take place somewhere else.
Life pottered on at Catsfield until one day the order “Take your chaps over to Normanhurst Court and sweep it through.” Where? I soon found out it was a neo stately home next to Ashburnham Place.
I have recently learned that it was home to the Brassey family, whose wealth came from the fact that Brassey himself was responsible for building a significant proportion of the world’s railways.
A real example of the nouveau riche and not on very good terms with his Ashburnham neighbour who I was told used to refer to him as ‘that engine driver next door’.
Anyway, back to the domestic chores for the day. It took my lot about three minutes to discover the walls separating the ground floor rooms were about three feet thick with hollow bits accessed by secret panels that allowed those in the know either to disappear into the wall or pass through into the next room.
They found it hilarious and showed me their discovery with pride. Not so another NCO who obviously hadn’t the same rapport with his gang.
I think they led him a hell of a dance and he spent most of the day looking for them.
Sweeping isn’t too much a chore when you’re having fun and mine did a reasonable job before going on a voyage of discovery. They found the grotto. Oh Gawd. The grotto occupied about twenty yards of semi underground cavern: very gloomy and peopled by stone figures of a remarkable nature, some elfin, some animal but not he sort you would find in a zoo.
There was a sort of rocky foundation and these creatures were lurking about amongst cascades of natural cork bark and peering out from amongst ferns and other greenery that abounded. One of the chaps came across what one could well describe as a prone gnome this he mounted in a simulated sexual assault and promptly caught sight of his reflection in a grubby mirror which was also lurking in the undergrowth.
He leapt to his feet with amazing rapidity and I think aged several years in a couple of seconds.
I don’t know to what extent our ministrations improved Normanhurst, but it mattered little as we soon received the bad news, we were to move into the place ourselves. The one redeeming feature was that there was a footpath connecting Normanhurst with Catsfield and thus able to continue our social life which consisted of a village hop at Catsfield on Saturdays and another at Ninfield on Wednesdays.
Normanhurst was not an easy place in which to live and must have been an absolute hell of a place for the servants in earlier days. I, with others, slept in a room at the top of one of the octagonal towers. It was 99 steps down to breakfast; 99 steps back up to put our webbing equipment on for morning parade, 99 down for parade, and then 99 back to take it off again and 99 down to taste whatever delights the day had to offer.
These were much as usual, squad drill, two or three hour march or medical lectures if wet. The march was fairly popular as we were able to incorporate a pause for breath etc at “The Squirrel”, which was conveniently situated nearby.
About now Ted and I were asked to get a concert to entertain the luckless local troops. It was to take place on Sunday afternoon in the Senlac cinema in Battle.
The building is still there but is now an estate agent, a pity it wasn’t then. It might have saved a lot of trouble. I have since learned that Senlac is Norman French for ‘lake of blood’.
It could hardly have been more apt. Ted and I had done this sort of thing before but in a much smaller way of course and only to entertain the chaps in our own unit.
We put together a reasonable programme of about 20 acts, including a very athletic tap dancer, a chap who described himself as a ‘whispering tenor’ and a gymnast who swung Indian clubs in the dark: the clubs having little lights on the ends, very much more effective than it sounds.
Came the day. B Company had been posted to Sandwich without warning. This meant we lost more than half our performances including the budding Fred Astaire, which was a pity because he would have done two sessions and the Indian clubs.
Ted and I had planned to do a western brother type act but in order to pad things out a bit we fished out another item. Had this been one of our own company shows we could have postponed it but as it had been publicised locally there was no going- back.
We went up to the cinema in the morning only to find that the piano was more than a little short of notes that actually worked. After pushing it up against a radiator for a while it began to dry out enough for us to apply a fair amount of massage to enable us to form some sort of quorum, anyway Ted thought it would just about do.
And as he was the one who was going to have to play it he knew which parts of the keyboard to avoid. I don’t remember much about the performance; I was introducing the thing and, in my mind, kept alternating between:
“How can I pad it out a bit more?” and “how soon can we wrap it up and go home?”.
An outstanding feature was the whispering tenor who whispered into a microphone that wasn’t switched on and he stood there making silent mouth movements to a somewhat bemused audience who were very kind to us: we had explained our problem at the outset and they neither jeered nor booed once It wasn’t very long before we were on the move again.
This is where dates and location get somewhat confused. I think our first move must have been to Horsmonden, as it wasn’t all that far away and our general drift was eastwards.
By the end of 1941 we were somewhere up by the north foreland. By the same thinking, it must have been from Horsmonden that I went to a concert in Tunbridge Wells we must have been taken there as a party,
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