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15 October 2014
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Recollections of War Service (Part 1)

by Bridport Museum

Contributed by 
Bridport Museum
People in story: 
Tony King
Location of story: 
Bristol, Bovington,Morpeth,Scarborough,Wool
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A4485323
Contributed on: 
19 July 2005

Corporal Tony King, 5th RIDG, Itzehoe, Germany, 1945

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

When war was declared I was fifteen and on holiday at a remote farmhouse on the banks of Loch Tay, hearing Neville Chamberlain's fateful announcement on a crackling wireless set in the farmer's kitchen. With the threat of early petrol rationing our holiday was quickly curtailed and a search was made that Sunday for filling stations with petrol cans for sale to ensure our safe return to the family home in Bristol. My three sisters all played their part in the War Effort, Joan in the Land Army, Betty as theatre sister in a hospital treating war wounded and Ruth in the ATS.

The strong spirit of patriotism amongst most boys of my age at that time led to a strange hope that our elders. who claimed the War would soon be over were wrong, and that our chance would come to join the fight against
Fascism.With this is mind, my schoolfriends and I took every opportunity over the next year or two to prepare ourselves for the great day when we could enlist in the Armed Forces - for example I spent the
1940 summer holidays at a forestry camp in the Forest of Dean, helping to cut pit-props, etc., and after leaving school (having had my school certificate exams. constantly interrupted by daylight bombing raids over Bristol) I went, with my friend John Richardson, on a walking tour through Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire expressly for the purpose of toughening up our feet, in August 1941.

As my eighteenth birthday approached early in 1942, John and I decided to volunteer rather than wait for conscription, since this would give us more choice of armed service. The relative glamour of RAF aircrew made an easy first choice but we both failed 'the very stringent medical exam. due to minor sight defects (which did not deter the Army MO from passing us Al shortly afterwards!) and plumped for our second choice - tank crew. We both received postings to the Royal Armoured Corps at Bovington Camp in Dorset but, such was the nature of the Army recruiting bureaucracy then, we were placed in different intakes so that we did not train together. During training John volunteered for the Parachute Regiment and was later recruited into the SOE as a wireless operator, taking part in undercover operations first in the Balkans and then in the Far East. Tragically he was killed in action just before VJ Day in 1945, shot by a Japanese fighter pilot while making a parachute descent.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS
One day in March, 1942, armed with a travel warrant and with somewhat mixed feelings, I boarded a train at Bristol's Temple Meads station bound for Wool, Dorset on the long-extinct Somerset & Dorset line, via Yeovil Junction. En route other raw recruits had joined the train and there was a small reception committee of regular army NCOs waiting for us at tiny, rural Wool station ready to give us our first taste of barked orders and regimentation - I recall feeling aggrieved that volunteers should be so brusquely treated, after all we were not your common-or-garden conscript and the powers that be ought to show their gratitude; ho hum! Some twenty young men, already pretty bewildered, were bundled into the back of a 3 ton truck for the short journey to Bovington and the hutted camp of the 58th Young Soldiers' Training Regiment, RAC.

The new intake of around 100 recruits was housed in a "spider" unit - four timber barrack blocks, equipped with two-tier bunk beds and steel lockers, linked to a central ablutions block - cold water only to the zinc plated wash-basins, although there was sometimes hot water to the communal showers.

The remainder of that first day of army life was a confusing blur of strange rituals: issuing of an army paybook, complete with a short form of Will, and a set of identity discs; kitting out with black beret, RAC cap badge (mailed fist enclosed in "pincer movement" arrows), ill-fitting battledress, denim overalls, shirts Khaki, drawers long and short, vests interlock, socks grey and boots black, plus blankets (no sheets for rankers in the army, just the rough kiss of coarse wool mixture - not always too clean as the number of visages daubed in gentian violet as a treatment for impetigo and dermatitis bore witness),tin mug, mess-tins, "eating irons", "housewife" (a canvas roll containing mending materials and suchlike) and numerous other bits and pieces of military equipment - although not, as yet, any firearms; filling a large ticking bag with straw to form a palliasse - a tricky operation since overfilling like a fat sausage resulted in falling out of bed until the straw settled, whilst underfilling meant hard nights on the steel mesh base of the bunk once the straw had quickly compressed into nothing more than chaff;marching in a ragged column, still in civvies, to the huge, noisy regimental mess hall and being subjected to the good natured joshing of the "old soldiers" (i.e. those who joined up a month or two earlier) while trying to consume a meal like nothing Mother ever cooked.

Somehow, by the end of that day, Tony King, ex-grammar schoolboy brought up in a middle-class family, was transformed into 14216129 Trooper King A.C. - a very green and not altogether happy rookie in totally alien surroundings.

THE HARD STUFF
After the first traumatic day or two, during which many of my companions and I began to wish we had never joined, life rapidly became too busy to dwell on the injustice of it all and there followed six hectic weeks of intensive initial training aimed at toughening up the body and disciplining the mind (if young criminal offenders these days were subjected to such a rigorous regime there would be a public outcry). Reveille was at 0600 hours followed by one hour of strenuous PT before breakfast, then first parade at 0800 hrs.. Daily routine consisted of square bashing under the tender guidance of a drill sergeant seconded from the l7th. 2Ist. Lancers (The Death or Glory Boys) - a regular soldier of the old school who saw nothing to commend in a pansy bunch of mothers' boys - route marches, cross country runs, assault courses and (perhaps most hated of all) gas warfare training which entailed donning gas masks and capes then marching "follow-my-leader" into a darkened hut filled with chlorine gas, being ordered to remove our masks for a few seconds (which seemed like hours) and stumbling out of the other end of the hut coughing and spluttering, with eyes and noses streaming.

Some lighter relief came from swimming in the garrison pool and, for those like me who had reached a fair standard, at Lulworth Cove where the ultimate test was to swim across the Cove clad in denim overalls, with a pack on one's back and heavy "ammo" boots laced together and hung around one's neck.

Basic weapon training on the small-arms range was a favourite of mine, and I reached almost marksman standard with the .38 Smith & W.esson (the standard issue to tank crews) and .45 Webley revolvers; we also learned to use and maintain the .303 short Lee Enfield rifle, the Thompson sub-machinegun (later replaced by the cheap, inferior Sten gun) and the Bren machine gun.

Of course, throughout this period there was endless cleaning and "bulling' of equipment - brass polish and blanco not supplied but purchased with our slender resources from the NAAFI - and other fairly tedious chores like polishing the barrack room floor, whitewashing kerbstones around the parade ground, etc.. All part of the philosophy of breeding unquestioning acceptance of orders so vital for an efficient fighting force in those times. No leave passes were issued and recruits were virtually confined to the
garrison for those six weeks; there were the usual rumours about bromide being added to our tea, presumably to protect the virtue of the small unit of ATS girls and a handful of NAAFI girls who were the only females within
the confines of the garrison !

I often wonder if the authorities ever realised how often the more cunning amongst the recruits managed to breach the "confined to camp" rule.

THE INTERESTING BIT
A 48 hour leave pass heralded the end of intensive training and our families saw their soldier boys in uniform for the first time.All the moans and groans were forgotten and I, for one, felt on top of the world, ready for anything life might serve up. Never since that time have I felt so fit and "tuned up", so perhaps the Army knew what they were doing after all.

For the rest of 1942 I received fairly specialised training in all aspects of tank warfare:
gunnery at Lulworth Camp, firing 6 pounders and turret mounted Besa machine guns at targets set on the North face of Bindon Hill - and sometimes over the top, justifying clearance of the inshore shipping from that sea area when the range was in use;wireless operating, including use of the Morse Code, and maintaining the No. 19 sets which were then standard tank equipment. The best part of this course was the practical field training, when two of us went out
into the Dorsetshire countryside in an Austin 10 hp PU driven by an ATS girl with a 19 set under the canvas tilt on which we practised sending signals to and receiving them from base - my lasting love of Dorset stems from the views I enjoyed from the back of a PU; funny how often our itinerary seemed to take us to somewhere like Studland or Swanage Bay, on the limits of radio range, and how we carried swimming trunks and a towel in our packs that glorious summer!

Driving and maintenance - as the proud possessor of a driving licence, having learned to drive on my father's car, I was excused basic driving lessons on a Guy 15 cwt. truck and joined a small cadre on a motor cycle course, scrambling across the sandy heathland surrounding Bovington on despatch riders' 350 cc Matchless, Norton and Royal Enfield bikes. My introduction to tank driving took place on the A352 Wool-Wareham main road (luckily much less busy then), an experience which I shall never forget. The noise, even though I was wearing padded earphones connected to my instructor through the intercom., the vibration, the impression of sheer power and weight (the tank was a Churchill, a 40 ton infantry support vehicle with a 350 hp Bedford engine and a top speed of around 15 mph), the claustrophobic, padded driving compartment with very limited visibility through a small porthole in the front armourplate, the massive steel tracks rotating just within my line of sight, the strange heavyweight controls with steering tillers and a gearlever centrally placed between the driver's legs (for two-handed use when necessary), all contributed to an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy on that first brief run. However, I survived and rapidly acclimatised myself so that, after a day or two, I was thoroughly enjoying myself in the driver's seat and soon graduated to much faster, but lighter, cruiser tanks - Covenanters and Crusaders - driving cross-country on the nearby heathlands, an exhilarating experience flat out at 35 mph and when negotiating specially formed mounds and other obstacles as an exercise in fine control of these ungainly vehicles. Coupled with workshop training which I also enjoyed, it soon became clear that this was the right speciality for me.

The training course ended with some basic tactical skills aimed at potential crew commanders, and map reading - also a strange device known as a TEWT (tactical exercise without troops) which only a military mind could have thought up, the finer points of which were quite beyond my comprehension. But as it involved a lot of sitting around on high ground in open Dorset countryside, few complaints were forthcoming from the trainees, except when it rained. I "passed out" as a qualified driver/mechanic with the splendid daily addition of one shilling and sixpence trade pay to my modest Trooper's remuneration.

MY PHONEY WAR
Now that the time had come for posting to a service regiment we were presented with a choice of around ten battalions of the Royal Tank Regiment and former cavalry regiments, but given no information as to their whereabouts, so picking a unit was very much pot luck. I cannot recall why I chose the 5th. Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards (known throughout the Army as "The Skins") - I certainly had no Irish blood or connections. After Christmas leave at home in Bristol I found myself on a long and tedious train journey to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to join the Regiment, then part of the 9th. Armoured Division and stationed at Felton, a tiny village on the Al north of Morpeth. The winter of 1943 was so bitterly cold in Northumberland that condensation, which formed on the inner face of the corrugated iron Nissen huts, sometimes turned to ice, despite the heat generated by twenty bodies and the central Turtle stove, which was kept stoked up with coke and logs day and night. In spite of such hardship, the commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Sangster, perhaps fearful that his men might become soft, ordered daily rations of a gruelling assault course which included inching one's way, in full kit, along a rope bridge suspended over the fast-flowing River Coquet, with sadistic PT instructors on the banks at each end joggling the ropes in the hope of dislodging our frozen grip, causing an unwelcome dip in the icy waters below.

The Regiment, when in the 2nd. Arrnoured Brigade, had been in the thick of the fighting in the BEF and the veterans who had endured that and the Dunkirk evacuation started to mutter mutinously about such treatment, bringing about a sudden change to a more leisurely and relaxed routine. I made the cardinal error of answering a call for volunteers with building trade experience (during the few months between leaving school and enlisting I had worked for a building contractor as a trainee quantity surveyor) and found myself redecorating the sergeants' mess - at least it kept me out of the cold, avoiding the twice-daily chore of starting up the tanks, charging batteries, freeing frozen components and the general maintenance needed to keep them in operational order.

In order to boost morale the frequency of day and evening leave passes was increased" with liberty trucks (dubbed “passion wagons" by the troops) regularly visiting Newcastle and Morpeth - and, since a number of officers and other ranks still had "horsey" connections stemming from cavalry days, to racecourses as far afield as Doncaster on the rare occasions when races were held during wartime. Tribal feuds between rival units were common in Newcastle (the lager lout is not a new phenomenon, although damage to property and assault upon innocent bystanders were uncommon side effects of servicemen's scraps) and those of us who preferred quieter pastimes tended to favour Morpeth where the natives were very friendly and it was possible to achieve the ambition of many old soldiers and get one's feet under a table. An abiding memory is of missing the last truck to leave Morpeth at 2300 hrs. and, with half a dozen mates finding themselves similarly placed, having for various reasons lost track of time, marching down the centre of the almost deserted Al singing at the tops of our voices current favourites like "You are my sunshine" and "Rollout the Barrel" on the 10 mile hike back to camp, arriving in the small hours. Reveille call at 0600 hrs. that morning was less than welcome.

For the rest of 1943 the Regiment seemed to be constantly on the move a period best described in the Regimental history "Change and Challenge, 1928-1978":

'Seen through the eyes of a junior soldier of the day, who has described himself as a uniformed gipsy, moving ceaselessly from tents to Nissen huts and back to tents, up and down the country on tank trains and transporters, training, always training, it was a very strange existence.'

I had a lucky break during that summer as I was attached to the Brigade driving and maintenance school based at Scarborough, with billets in requisitioned seafront hotels.

A recent visit to the resort brought back memories of the training tanks parked along the road above North Bay and, on one memorable occasion, of an 18 ton Covenanter tank with a faulty handbrake and carelessly placed chocks rolling gently towards the cliff-top, to be miraculously arrested by a sturdy cast-iron lamppost just before it plunged to the promenade below.

By and large tank units were unpopular with local councils, and sometimes with townspeople, because of the actual and potential damage caused to streets, walls and even buildings by the heavy steel track links and often unpredictable roadholding and steering capabilities on metalled surfaces. Thus we tended to be stationed in remote rural areas where only a few farmers suffered from our manoeuvres !

Towards the end of 1943 the Regiment was re-equipped with the latest cruiser tank, to replace the elderly Crusaders and Covenanters. This was the Cromwell, much more heavily armoured, weighing 28 tons, and
armed with a long-barrelled, high velocity 75 mm main gun which was a startling improvement upon the old 6 pounders. A 600 hp Rolls Royce Meteor V-12 engine (modified from the Merlin used in the Spitfire) gave the Cromwell a top speed of 40 mph. Extensive battle training with the new vehicles followed, in Yorkshire and East Anglia, with gunnery practice on Warcop ranges in Westmoreland. For reasons that were not then clear to the ordinary soldier the whole tempo of training seemed to be accelerating during that Winter of 1943/44.

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