- Contributed by
- People in story:
- William Cockburn ,Charlie Guy
- Location of story:
- England - how we nearly blew up Winston ChurchillE
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 May 2005
As I have explained earlier ,leave was a long time coming in the Siege Regiment, and I became very agitated as my turn approached.My concern was occasioned by an outbreak of carbuncles on various parts of my body caused - according to the SBA (Tiffy) by my being allergic to the anti-gas chemical with which our battledress uniforms were impregnated .While on guard we were obliged to sleep fully dressed and this naturally made things worse.The Tiffy warned me that leave was not granted to anyone reporting sick and he set about a drastic course of treatment to get me fit .We thought he had succeeded when with three days to go two new ones developed on my backside .One on each buttock ,so placed that as I walked their heads hit each other.As they increased in size so did the pain ! I was determined not to report sick and at 0600 hours on the first day of my leave my oppoes heaved me aboard the three tonner for the short drive to Martin Mill Station to catch the early train to London .I stood all the way to Charing Cross and again on the tube across "the Smoke" to Euston where I arrived with only minutes to spare for the Manchester train.It was a very woebegone Marine that struggled along that platform dragging his kit and looking for a gap in the crowded corridors and compartments.Then , almost at the engine ,with steam swirling all around EUREKA!! A vacant seat .Quickly ,before anyone else could take advantage of this bonanza , I flung myself down K-e-e-e-r-r-i-s-t !!!*****
The train was passing Watford when the red mists began to clear and I looked round at my fellow passengers , who for their part were gazing anxiously at me .How to explain that horrendous yell and a multi-coloured complexion to a mixed audience ?
For five hours I was unmoving , wondering what kind of spectacle my rear end would present when I stood again.Finally ,arriving at London Road station I waited until everyone else had got off before proceeding crablike along the walls of the station and the outside streets to the bus terminus.The conductor ,most concerned at my painful gait ( and probably thinking it was a result of being injured in action ) insisted that a passenger sitting near the door should give up his seat for me.My mother was a mite put out when I cut short her effusive greetings and dashed upstairs to survey the damage.After detaching my service issue flannel from my posterior (to the accompaniment of much hoo-ing and haa-ing .) I was gratified to find that all traces of carbuncles had disappeared.My netherwear was unsalvable ,but the cost of replacement was a small price to pay for painless sitting.The efficacy of service flannel as a poultice was such that I never again suffered boils or the like.
Despite the continuous guards and other duties ,time hung heavily on our hands and boredom was never far away."Shore " leave consisted of trips to Dover from whence most of the young female population had been evacuated ,leaving nothing much of interest to us , their gallant defenders.The high spots of a night out htere were a couple of pints of watery beer , a chorus of " me and my girl " , and beans on toast in a local cafe.Even so ,the parlous state of our finances on three shillings a day , meant that these high jinks were only affordable fortnightly .Our lords and masters went to considerable lengths to keep us diverted in between times.One much favoured by them was rifle practice.Now our previous experience of this pursuit had not involved much energy on our part consisting as it had of lying down at various distances from the targets (Butts) and firing the designated number of rounds in their direction , usually with a modicum of success.The range at Kingsdown however was laid out along a sloping shingle beach which we had to traverse at the double between shoots , turning what had previously been a pleasant day out into sheer hard graft.All this was keeping us fit of course , as did the introduction of tug-of-war tournaments at which the teams became so proficient they were capable of leaving heel marks in concrete.More sedate entertainment was providied by the occasional film shown in the village hall of St Margarets-at-Cliffe.An interesting piece of equipment in the hall was an instrument called a pianola .It was a piano that could be played normally or , by inserting a roll of specially perforated paper ,could play a variety of tunes automatically.We were all fascinated by this , listening to the music and watching the keys going up and down , untouched by human hand.
Just before we moved to our next posting ,one Saturday,we were in the "A" battery dining room midway through lunch .Action stations was sounded.The dining room was in the HQ complex and we had about a mile to cover to reach our gun.The guns were widely spread around HQ to allow for each gun's security perimeter therefore a specially constructed light railway connected the gun sites to HQ.
Once we arrived at our action stations we were kept hanging about wondering what was afoot and thinking of the half eaten meal we'd left behind getting cold.
The cause of our deprivation then appeared in the form of Mr Winston Churchill.Apparently he was on one of his morale-boosting trips ,and hearing that our gun was called "Winnie"(After him ,he thought !) he decided to pay us a visit.In honour of the great man it was decided to fire a round.Now ,the gun drill for "Winnie" was totally different from that for the railway guns.The ammunition was stored in bunkers at the rear ,to left and right of the breech."Winnie's" breech was a good height off the ground ,and to get the shell up there a powered crane was used.This crane was mounted on the gun itself and had a grab that secured the shell when lifting.The crane operator had to pick up the shell and lift it to the loading tray where a powered ram pushed it into the barrel.The cordite charges in their "bags" were then loaded into the breech.
All went well as Winnie inspected "Winnie" and her fearless crew,then the order came "LOAD,LOAD,LOAD "and the shell was trundled at a fair lick on it's bogie up to the crane .Unfortunately the crane operator ,unnerved by the occasion , jerked the lift control ,causing the shell to rotate wildly on the end of the cable.Then ,instead of waiting for it to stabilise he tried to gauge when it was swinging towards the loading tray.His judgment was however at fault ,and three quarters of a ton of high explosive came to rest with its fuse pointing towards a powerful ram .If the drill had proceeded maybe I would not be boring you with this account.
Anyway we finished up with a shell pointing the wrong way ,a half eaten lunch ,all shore leave cancelled and loads of extra gun drill...
In early Summer 1943 we were transferred en masse to Combined Operations and arrived on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Devizes railway station to be welcomed by the Wiltshire regiment's band ,behind whom we marched through the town.It was stiffening stuff ,the town centre was crowded with local people and a great number of American troops.They obviously though that being feted in this manner and with our newly sewn on combined ops shoulder flashes we were returning heroes.We were given a marvellous reception and after parading through the town we arrived at the Witshires' barracks where we were to spend the next two nights.The accommodation had been built for American servicewomen and thus was palatial by our standards.It was back to Earth with a thump however when we reached our next billets in nearby Corsham.These consisted of long huts sectioned off into rooms each with a door leading off a corridor that ran the length of one side of the hut.We were told that they were originally built for civilian workers engaged in projects in and around the district,then each room had housed one man .We were to share ,four to a room.The weather rapidly became very cold and as the huts had no form of heating we were pretty miserable.The ex-Murmanskers scoffed at our grousing saying we had no notion what it was like to be truly cold.Nevertheless as the temperature plummeted they were as glad as the rest of us to drink the hot soup provided throughout the day at various spots in the camp.
It was here that we were introduced to the 4.7 BL naval gun,a rather decrepit model of which was bolted to a concrete square near our huts.The larger part of our days were was spent learning the drill for this weapon which , without the benefit of any other equipment soon became hugely uninspiring.It was without regret then that bored and cold ,we moved on to our next course.
This was held at H.M.S. Excellent ( Whale Island) and we were bellietted for the duration of the course in requisitioned boarding houses on Southsea promenade.Each room held 8 men in two tiered bunks,and a coal fire kept out the cold.It was almost Christmas by now and the weather was severe.The course itself was marvellous,the instructors being complete professionals.Each day we were bussed from Southsea to Whale Island ,alighting on the mainland end of the bridge then marching across the bridge onto the island.Once through the entrance we were required to double everywhere we went.This was the first of several novel feratures about H.M.S. Excellent.They were years ahead of the times in their attitudes to smoking for instance....in 1943 smoking was considered to be a manly thing ,a sign of maturity and sophistication.Not on Whale Island !Smoking was allowed but only out of doors ,and not when moving.Furthermore smoking was not allowed on the pavement , so smokers stood in the road - and so as not to impede other squads doubling about they literally had to stand in the gutter.The actual amount of time in the working day when it was possible to smoke was very small - the time between classes ,5 minutes ,some of which would be taken up with getting from one place to the next ,and after the middasy meal.It was reckoned possible to smoke 2 cigarettes between arriving at 0800 hours and leaving at 1700.As for me a solitary Woodbine was all I could manage .(but I used up a lot of matched re-lighting it !)
Every day upon arrival we took part in Divisions held on the main parade ground,the only other formal parade took place after lunch ( the food was always good and hot - so hot in fact as to be difficult to eat in the limited time allowed.)All the various groups - several hundreds in number - had to fall in on the quarter deck at a given signal.Until the signal came evryone had to stand still,once it came we all had to double to our allotted positions.Collisions were frequent as hundreds of bootnecks and matelots rushed about ,not wishing to be the last to fall in.There were three cardinal sins on Whale Island , smoking ,walking and being last at anything !
The classes themselves were first rate ,we were given a thorough grounding in gunnery with emphasis on the 4.7 " All in all it was a good time.I think we all felt we had moved up a gear.There was just one thing for me to grouse about - well there would be wouldn't there ?
Our stay in Southsea included Christmas Day which meant we had a day off .Unfortunately I was the only one on my course to pick up a duty,that of company runner.This caused me to be sent on an errand in the early aftyernoon from which I did not return for a couple of hours whereupon I discovered that all my mates had been invited out for Christmas dinner by local people .So I had a solitary feast in the canteen.Our time in Pompey quickly came to an end and we moved on to the next phase of our training which was to take place in Plymouth.Although I was a Plymouth rating this was to be my first visit to the division.
The purpose of our stay in Plymouth was to learn the complexities of the Derlikon Gun.This is a 20mm automatic cannon primarily designed as an anti-aircraft weapon.We did not live in the main barracks (Stonehouse) but were accommodated in a building called the Roundhouse ,as its name suggests ,a circular building.
Here we were introduced to the hammock.Initially the occasion of much hilarity ,once we got used to the gymnastics involed in this type of slumber we became converts.The course was again conducted by people who had been at the sharp end ,consequently we took it all in,a fact that stood us in good stead later on the "Trout line ".
At this time everybody was aware that all this training was to prepare us for the invasion of Europe.We were also made aware that the Germans also knew about these preparations and might be expected to react .It was amid this atmosphere that I drew another duty .It was something to do with my surname initial being "C" ,the military mind loves alphabetical , a lone sentry in a bleak position overlooking Plymouth Sound in general and Drake's Island in particular.Thus it was that ,with the guard commander's dire warnings about the distinct possibility of German commandoes having a go at the invasion preparations ringing in my ears,I spent the most frightening four hours ,imagining myself alone and vulnerable .Until my relief came of course when I reported "No problem "
As the course in Plymouth was to last only a fortnight there were few opportunities to see the town which had been severely damaged by the Luftwaffe.Charlie Guy ,myself and one other did however manage to get "ashore" on the middle Saturday of our stay.We spent the afternoon watching Plymouth Argyle play,both teams fielded "guest" players , the most notable of whom was Stanley Matthews.After the match we went into the town and had some food before venturing out onto the streets to enjoy the fleshpots, it was full dark by now and as we groped our way about in the blackout it soon became obvious that entertainment would be hard to come by .Such pubs as were open were bursting at the seams and the only cinema we found was girdled by a huge queue , so ,disconsolately ,we turned for home.Then - miraculously - we came upon a modern cinema with its marble facade glowing faintly in the moonlight and , wonder of wonders ,no queue.The stills on display outside this magnificent edifice indicated a rather dated film but
what the hell you can't have everything so we entered the foyer.This was as palatial as the front and just as deserted ,even the ultra modern glassed-in ticket booth was empty.Hallelujah ! We weren't even going to have to pay !
Passing through the door marked "Stalls - odd numbers" we found no stalls ,no ushers ,no screen in short nothing at all.The cinema had taken a direct hit which had completely destroyed the auditorium but had left the foyer and the frontage unmarked.Wondering whether the bomb had fallen during a performance we made for the Roundhouse and the comfort of our hammocks.
It was some time during this period that we acquired other skills .Firstly ,it was decided that we should be able to swim, so one bright day we were taken to a public swimming bath there to be segregated into swimmers or non-swimmers.Being fearful of the fate that awaited all volunteers I elected to be a "non".
The swimmers were then told to amuse themselves at the shallow end while the nons would be taught how to swim.This tuition consisted of mounting to the highestpoint of the diving board at the deep end ,a position up among the roof girders , and then jumping off .Upon surfacing - which somehow we all did - instructors at the sides fished us out with long poles.We were now adjudged to be swimmers who could be relied upon to abandon ship and survive .It was not explained who would provide the long poles when the need arose....
We were also required to fight fire ,and to this end we were given a whole day's training.Starting at 8am with a stirrup pump putting out a fire in a small bucket of oil we progressed through the day to culminate in a grand finale at 5pm when a group manning a full size hose extinguished a huge fire in a large rectangular tank of oil.It was all very exciting but of little practical use if we had had to fight a fire on our LCG * .
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