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A Boy Scout at War

by Asabot

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Alan Sandall
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Reading, Berkshire
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27 December 2005

A Boy Scout at War!
This is a precis of a talk to my Rotary Club:
This year, 2005, we in Rotary are celebrating 100 years; we are also marking 60 years since the end of the Second World War in Europe. I realise, as I stand here today, that I have forgotten one of the most important things that the Royal Navy taught me in those far off days. Never volunteer!
Actually, I am quite pleased to speak today because this May, as has been shewn in the media, we have the chance to ensure that we do not forget how different the world was 60 years ago.
Perhaps I have been fortunate, or unfortunate?, to see plenty of life, and have a few escapes, and I am marked by the impressions left behind. Certainly, I come from an age where I believe we must not forget the lessons of history — and particularly recent history, to make my point.
The debate in the dying days of the last Parliament, to enable people to be locked up without a proper trial, sent shudders of worry through me: turn back the clock 70 years and look at Europe in the 1930s.
Enough of that.
How many of you can remember what your lives were like when you were in your teens; or of your children’s; or now of grandchildren. It was because of this national urge to remember 60 years ago that I was stirred to think back to my teens. They were certainly different! Hence today.
For those who are even older, they will probably give a shrug of their shoulders and say this is peanuts to what they remember. For those who are younger, just think, What were you doing when you were 11 to 18?
In today’s circumstance, as I am getting old, perhaps, at last, I can be immodest and read to you an article I wrote
Boy Scout at War
Try as I might, I could not carry the kitbag packed for my first camp. It seemed as tall and certainly more round than myself, a real Tenderfoot. There was no lightweight camping gear in August 1938. I had been invested just weeks and this was exciting.
Ignominiously, it was carried for me on a bicycle. It seemed the neighbours were joining Dad to see me off. That camp was really special, so different in the mundane world pre-war.
Then, suddenly, for an 11-year-old, Scouting itself became so different! And so important.
Days before war was declared with Nazi Germany, like many other Scouts, with schools closed, I was helping at an evacuation reception centre, in Tilehurst, Reading. Visible in my Scout uniform, with green shirt (the colour of St Michael’s, Tilehurst) and wide brimmed hat, my task was to go with the Mayor, who was taking the bewildered children and their tiny bundles to the houses where they were to make their new homes.
As a Scout I was expected to know all the streets, so I rode in his limousine and guided him. Suddenly, there was a crisis, the grown-ups were in a huddle, the Mayor had lost his just-issued Army-type gasmask. I had delivered it with an evacuee as his bundle. Oops!
Journalism was in my blood, I guess, I dashed home to listen on the radio to the Prime Minister declare war — and then could not return promptly as the siren sounded and the air raid warden, swathed in his anti-gas clothing, cleared the streets.
As Scouts we set up a massive waste paper collection service, borrowing a huge trailer. This went on for months. I found many Scout magazines in the bundles and read avidly before returning them. Suddenly our Scouters disappeared into the Forces.
Our Group Scout Master, of the Tilehurst St Michael’s group, was an elderly but very upright and alert ex-Royal Marine officer and he kept things going. Then the strangest of things happened.
At 13, I joined the LDV (the Local Defence Volunteers, later renamed Home Guard), on the day it was announced.
We were playing British Bulldogs at a troop meeting when in marched our GSM with an Army officer. Gathered round, we sat on the floor, the officer told us about Dunkirk — we had all seen the first of the bedraggled survivors arriving home — and the plan to start a civilian army, the LDV, to fight if England were invaded. “Would we as Scouts be scouts and messengers for the LDV?” he asked. “Yes” we said.
“Could two start duty this evening?” Up shot my arm and off I went. That organised chaos is another story. I was late home that night to tell my parents! I had joined before my dad.
For a year, with other Scouts, I spent evenings and weekends forever taking messages, parading and exercising. I could handle a Ross rifle, built for left-handed users, they had come from Canada, that’s how desperate it was. When at last a Lewis machine gun arrived, I could strip and refit that in record time, including loading the huge round magazine, but they would not let me fire it. (The knowledge impressed the Royal Navy when I joined; I did not tell them I learnt it as a Scout!)
The Blitz was on and somehow I knew I could be more use than with the Home Guard. I presented myself in Scout uniform at one of the war-time fire stations and volunteered. Well under age but so were so many other Scouts. My fire-fighter, ambulance, pioneer badges were what interested them.
In those dark days everyone was immediately taught to be a fire-fighter, operating the pumps as well as handling the hose. Messengers also had to know all the back routes across the town to the other stations — and the nearest houses outside the town linked to a different telephone exchange. Also, and vitally important, be able to guide “strangers” to all the nooks and crannies where the river and canal could be reached for emergency water supplies.
Every other night, on a rota, one had to jump out of bed as the siren sounded and cycle furiously to the station — and sirens often sounded three or four times a night. All-night watch at the fire station was once a week.
Everyone was exhausted and at the fire station, a converted garage, we were soon asleep on the knocked-up bunk beds. One night, as the station’s alarm bell rang I grunted about the alarm clock going off. It took seconds for me to awake, I was so tired. I fell out of bed, pulled on my boots and coat (we all slept in the rest of our clothes), but I missed my crew. I saw the car and trailer pump going out of the door.
Hours later they returned coated in shiny magnesium powder and told of an explosion at the bomb filling factory and how the debris had crashed down their backs. I shivered as I realised that had I been with them, as a boy, and the messenger, I would have been following in their footsteps! Someone looked after me.
There were other very near misses but it was always a case of “Be prepared”.
Whilst all this was going on, a friend at school told me that his troop’s Scouters had gone and he was carrying on as the sole patrol leader. I went and joined him and, relying on what we could read to learn, we kept things going and the Norcot and Kentwood troop grew. One night, a knock at the Methodist church hall door where we were meeting gave us a wonderful surprise.
A doctor of science at the British Museum, (experimenting with explosives), came in through the blackout curtains asking “Could he help?” Dr Max Hey led us to the start of a brilliant period of Scouting.
Shortly after, we were ejected from the hall because, we were told, the church wanted to start a youth club. Thankful for the illumination from the searchlights sweeping the sky, throughout the winter, we met in the park — it didn’t take much effort to convince courting couples that the park shelter was better used by the Scouts.
Regularly as patrol leaders we would take our patrols away camping at weekends. There was no worry of war or of the military strangers we would meet.
Mum’s pram was converted to be a trailer pulled behind my cycle to carry the tents and other heavy gear. The rest was on our backs as we cycled off, not forgetting our minuscule rations which we shared. There was no other transport.
I nearly cried when I managed to buy a replacement patrol tent and had to immediately paint it in camouflage colours, the pristine white was far too obvious from the sky.
Indeed, the basic rules for camping were somewhat different. Camp under trees, often in chalk pits using the bushes for cover, was essential The fire was out in time for blackout. Try baking a cake in a biscuit tin oven using the oddest of ingredients available? We all loved it. But, we were very conscious of the danger of being machine gunned from the air!
It was great Scouting, with the wife of the scientist re-starting the Cubs.
Five of us became King Scouts. En route, First Class was tough — try setting up hikes in those conditions and with so little food — and then our All Round Cords. In 1943, we all cycled to the Scout Camp at Chalfont St Peter, Bucks, (where I was later to live) to meet the Chief Scout, Lord Somers. A proud moment for all of us, especially me as troop leader.
But, even that marathon journey was not without danger. On the return, the brakes on one of the bicycles, going down a steep hill, broke under the weight of rider and rucksack. “Doc Hey” acted as a human brake until the two cycles crashed together! Despite the weight of gear neither was seriously hurt.
By now the war had changed, we managed to use part of the parish church hall, the ARP centre, and start dreaming of our own headquarters when peace returned. That is another remarkable story.
Meanwhile, the fire services had long since reorganised to become the National Fire Service. At 17, I was senior messenger for the whole of 15 Fire Force, the three counties of Berks, Bucks and Oxon, communicating through leading messengers in each county.
We also operated a field telephone van to be ready to provide emergency communications. Try tieing telephone cables high up on street light poles, reached from a ladder balanced on the vehicle’s roof!
D-Day was approaching and we were frantically busy setting up cables in the parks which became bases for all the fire engines brought south ready to face the reprisal onslaught expected from German planes, on the troops waiting to go.
For both of us as pioneer patrol leaders it was time for our real ages. Both of us joined the Royal Navy and, as Deep Sea Scouts, kept our special links with the movement.
I met a Dutch Scout at HMS Royal Arthur, a dry-land ship in Butlins at Skegness. Somehow his experiences before freedom made him seem even more grown-up than I felt. There was a warm welcome too by the crew “below ground” in Malta, so much was flattened.
It was at Gibraltar that there was another unlikely Scouting experience. I found the 1st Gibraltar Service Rover Crew singing with great gusto at their meeting in the RAF’s link trainer room. Many had been cut off on The Rock for years but they had not wasted their time. Both the Governor and a Rear Admiral belonged and their expeditions seeking out the now famous underground caverns, and sailing, kept them from becoming “rock happy”.
Most importantly, when the Rock’s civilian inhabitants were allowed to return in 1944 the Rover Crew restarted the Scout troops. There was an immense crowd of boys wanting to join, I was told.
The first troops were being allowed home for demob or on leave. And so, as I arrived in Gibraltar, on my second visit to the Crew, an airman said: “Two of us run a Sea Scout troop, would you like to come and see?” The following week, he asked: “What did you think?” I thought they were great and he then said: “I’m going home in a few days and the other Scouter is in UK on leave getting married. Will you look after them?”
It was the start of another fascinating friendship. My boating proficiency test to take the boys to sea was taken by an RN Commissioned Bosun. It was the toughest of any undertaken since.
Today those friendships in the 3rd Gibraltar Troop as well as the Rover Crew still last, 60 years on. And, the survivors of the Crew still meet every two years.
Scouting is not the easiest to combine with journalism but I have managed to stay actively involved — and there have been some special stories since those war days. But, that is another story.
So are the exploits of the wartime fire-fighters, which I recorded in my book, “Are you 17?”, ISBN 0 9517757 1 5, with its meaningful title.

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