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Second World War Experiences: With the Royal Engineers

by warwicksurfer

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr John Chambers
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
02 December 2003

At 10 years old I went to the station approach waiting for the Marylebone to Manchester train to go through at 90 mph..The six foot driving wheels and side rods dancing up and down beautifully. So began my love affair with the railway.

It was the war that made things possible for me.

On 18th December 1939 I joined the Royal Engineers at Derby. After military training I received training in the School of Transport in an old LMSbuilding. We studied a full sized railway layout six times as large as an ordinary room.I learned more in 3/4hour than in my previous four years as a railway junior.
I was sitting in the cinema in Derby when the screen showed a message
“All troops report to barracks now”
The cinema manager slapped us on the back and said “Get home safely” and gave us a free ticket. We had no wireless so did not know what was happening but knew it must be serious to call us so urgently .I thought “If I am going to France tomorrow I am going to have some chips tonight –they might be the last chips I will have”.

We were not going to France but soldiers were returning from Dunkirk. We had to erect tents for the returners, carry blankets and prepared a meal. What a dreadful sight! The soldiers had not washed for a week; they were covered in oil and could hardly walk. They slept for twelve hours. Were given new uniforms and sent home on leave. Imagine the surprise of the cinema manager when we turned up to claim our free seats!

The Germans caught us half asleep one breakfast time. A lone raider plane came overhead (it was the first time this had happened ) He was looking for the Rolls Royce factory but the roof had been painted to look like a forest so he let the bomb drop any old where. If he had had a magnet he could not have been more successful – it dropped on our quartermasters stores and killed the occupants. About this time we went on a route march outside Derby, sleeping in the open with our blankets. We saw the bombs falling on Derby andd later heard of the civilian casualties. The soldiers had escaped. One time we were not so lucky. We heard the sirens and got into our hand dug trenches. I thought “I am not standing in four inches of rain water” so I crawled back into bed. I woke up next morning surrounded by shrapnel that had come through the tent. Several sergeants, and in the next field were killed, others were injured. Men were coughing and sneezing – but not me.
How the Lord looked after me.

We moved to Melbourne near Derby. I had sentry duty at the home of the former prime minister. The Methodist ladies darned our socks. Two of my mates were killed there. One was a signalman who only came out of his cabin to change a red light to green but then stood talking to another soldier between the rails. As it was not daylight properly the locomotive driver did not notice him on the track, and ran over them both. We knew one of the men had been doing a bit of courting so we went in his wallet and found a photograph of a young ladybut as we did not know if it was his wife or girlfriend we tore it up. We could not let a photo of his girlfriend go back to his widow.

Another soldier –Williamson - joined us from the same school as me. I said
“ stick with me and I will show you what to do”
We were taking a train load of empty coal wagons ten miles to Ashby-de-la-Zouch colliery and returning with eighteen loads of coal which was the maximum allowed on a falling gradient. The Sergeant Major said he was a man short and so Williamson would have to take the train himself. Williamson explained that he had only arrived that day and could not do it as he did not know the line. He was taken to the Officer for disobeying an order but the Officer agreed with Williamson.
”No man can take a train where he has never been –Case dismissed.”
It made the Sergeant Major look foolish. Not long afterwards there was a notice of soldiers going to France and . Williamsons name was there. I met him after the war in our town and heard what terrible experiences he had – shunted through six countries. I was still in Melbourne.
How the Lord looked after me.

Next we went Horbury near Wakefield . One midnight I was on sentry duty outside the park gate near to the cookhouse and dining room. A man came out of his house and gave me a cup of tea. If the Officer had seen me I would have been in trouble.Horbury was famous for a vicar –Rev. Baring Gould –who wrote the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” for a Whitsuntide procession. We had a chaplain who said
“You can have any hymn you like except that one. I am fed up of hearing it”.

We moved to Stranraer in the Scottish borders- from a good town to the worst.We were half way up a mountainside,in rusty Nissen huts with peeling paint. We arrived with ballast, sleepers and rails and in eighteen months had to construct ten miles of main line and one hundred miles of sidings. Westinghouse built two proper signal boxes. The Sergeant Major said,
”You,you,and you go and learn signalling”
We were three miles from the town and only had any transport on Saturdays and Sundays. Each day we would sit in the NAAFI after work and learn the rules of signalling. No wonder we all passed. So in Stranraer I took charge of my first signal box – the career I was to follow for the rest of my working life. From Stranraer I went to Bicester, Westbury, Sandwich and Southampton. This means I have worked on all four regions of British Rail (Stranraer- Scottish region. Horbury- Eastern region. Westbury- Western region. Southampton- Southern region.)

After Southampton I went to Arromanches then Caen. Here the cathedral only had broken windows whilst everywhere else was flattened. At Calais the RAF bombed us thinking they were over Dunkirk.
How the Lord looked after me.

I went to Lille in France and Nimegan in Holland. By this time the war was over but discharge did not occur immediately. We were employed taking train loads of potatoes from Brunswick to Spondau-Berlin.We did not control the trains but had to guard the potatoes to stop thefts.
On my last day in Germany I remember a party of schoolgirls in a park singing Brahms Cradlesong. It was a beautiful memory of normal homelife after the horror of separation and war.
I came back to Derby and in group 24 was discharged from Ashton -under-Lyne Lancashire with a new civilian suit on January 1st 1946. A new year and a new life.
I returned home to get to know a five year old daughter and an eighteen month old son and renew acquaintance with my wife after six years away serving my country.

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