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Memories of Frank Yates Chapter 17

by Frank Yates

Contributed by 
Frank Yates
People in story: 
Frank Yates, John Reed, David Tree, Capt.Callister, Peter Ciceri
Location of story: 
Tonfanau
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A7375845
Contributed on: 
28 November 2005

Tonfanau Officer Cadet Course August1942 Backrow L.G.Round, Frank Yates, L.N.Perry, Richards, Wally Oertinger, Robert S.Scott Front row A.Hambley, ? , E.N.Evans, Peter J. Ciceri, ? , John Reed, E.C.Hood

Memories of Frank Yates CHAPTER 17

When we left Shrivenham for the last time, we were given a return railway warrant for a place in Wales, called Tonfanau, near Towyn, in the far west of Wales. The warrant stipulated that we should arrange to arrive at Whitchurch at a certain time. As the GWR train left, on a single track along the old Cambrian Railways line, which headed west, through Oswestry and Welshpool, it was another first for me; I was 21 and had never been in Wales before.
The train took a surprisingly long time to wind its way along the beautiful valleys of the Severn and the Dovey, to Machlynlleth, taking the right fork at the remarkable Dovey Junction, a station miles from anywhere, with no road access at all. The left fork leads south to Aberystwyth, the north to Aber Dovey, Towyn and then to Tonfanau our destination. The station, between the camp gates and the sea, was laid in for the military traffic, as there were no civilian houses.
The camp was large, with brick and concrete hutments and purpose built dining halls, garages and the like, with the Garrison Theatre dominating the landscape. The camp had been Heavy AA before we moved in, but there were now two separate factions, the bulk of the Heavies had returned to their base Artillery depot at Oswestry, leaving a nucleus to run the firing camp. On the firing apron, between the sea and the railway, was an ex Naval 3” Gun, a weapon which fulfilled a dual role in the Navy. It had the reputation of producing the loudest “bang” of any British gun and they once fired it for our benefit. It certainly lived up to its reputation! Before leaving the “Heavies” may I mention that they did not fire at a towed drogue, the tow plane would not have survived. There was talk of them using a radio controlled, unmanned target, a project easily arranged nowadays, but too unreliable in those days.
When we moved into our living accommodation, an obvious thought occurred, both to us and to the powers that be. The floors were concrete, painted with a kind of green paint, making a non—polishable surface. This led to a much less oppressive style of life. Perhaps, having survived the first month, the regime would have been less rigorous, anyway?
At Tonfanau I began to enjoy life, the routine was becoming familiar and we all agreed that, after years of being NCOs with responsibilities, now, our only responsibilities were to ourselves. We didn’t even have to think of our work for the day, we were told what to do!
Our Squad was beginning to “gel” we had the usual crop of oddballs, but we got on well together, and in the end, we all survived to the bitter end. We worked on the Bofors drill, by cutting corners and modifying the drill book, so that from on the move, from the order “Halt, Action,” we could bring the gun into action, levelled, in 30 seconds. We were supposed to march up the main street, to all meals, with a duty cadet giving the orders. We thought this all a bit noisy, so we devised a method of marching away with no one giving any orders at all. We marched as smartly as any other squad and halted and dismissed with no orders, at the right place, with the right precision. We anticipated a rollicking, as we passed the Commandant’s office every day, but no complaint ever came. Perhaps they indulged us in our eccentricities!
At the inland end of the camp, we had our own private mountain, levelling out, at the top, into a small plateau. Our instructors would nearly always hold the instruction session on top of the hill, after we had run up the mountain. I well remember an unarmed combat session where we learned how to disarm a person holding a gun in one’s back, how to kill someone in about three ways and how to break the wrist of anyone foolish enough to give you an unwelcome push in the chest. All this on the top of a Welsh mountain! We got ever so fit, despite all the smoking! This fitness was improved by the sadists in black and red stripes who had wasted no time in building a new assault course, having lost the last one to the Americans. As usual it was largely made of old railway sleepers, the GWR seeming to have done a deal with the War Office. The course was circular, so that there would be no delay in starting over again! The final pièce de resistance was a kind of elongated Stonehenge, six vertical sleepers, carrying an elevated walkway of sleepers, approached by a ramp made from; you’ve guessed it, sleepers! The technique was simple, you ran up the ramp, ran along the top, six feet above the ground, and jumped off the end down onto a mat. No problem until Wally Oertinger arrived at the end and refused to jump.
His reputation had preceded him from Shrivenham and the red and black brigade were not to give in easily. An hour later, long after we had gone to our billets and showered, Wally was still stuck on the end, wearing just football shorts and plimsolls, burning in the sun, with a red and black posse pleading, cajoling and threatening, from down below. To no avail!
We did lots of mobile deployment exercises, even in the night. We took turns to be Troop commander etc. There is a large village, at the terminus of the Tal-y-llin narrow gauge railway, called, Abergynolwyn, which must be the most defended village in the war. The inhabitants must have tired of waking up to find a gun and soldiery in their back yards! On a memorable night exercise we deployed our guns on the wonderful beach at Borth, on the south side of the Dovey estuary, in front of a row of terraced hotels. When dawn broke and lights came on in the hotels, the young ladies of a teachers’ training college, evacuated from London, found their beach swarming with soldiers and the soldiers found every window full of young ladies, in their nighties, exchanging repartee. I suspect that our people had done a recce and they knew about the college!
Part of the course was instruction in motor cycling. An army officer prior to WW 1 would have to be able to ride a horse, indeed would own one. In WW 2 there must have been thousands of officers, like me, who had never even been near a horse, never mind riding one! The Motor Transport Department was run by a middle aged, portly captain, with two sergeants as henchmen.
There was a large tarmac area in front of the garages and the trio would instruct the lads on how to sit on the bikes and about the controls and, after showing them how to kick start them, would try to stop them falling off. John Reed, would you believe it, had been a works trials rider for BSA, in Birmingham. And as I was fairly confident, we were allowed to amuse ourselves round the perimeter of the practice area. Every week afterwards, we would go on a single file convoy round the roads, always stopping off for coffee, at a prearranged café. We visited some interesting places on these jaunts; I particularly liked a place called Fairbourne, South of Barmouth. It had the track of a very extensive 12”gauge railway, then derelict in wartime, but I went back in the 80’s, with Peggy, to find the railway running and in good health. On these jaunts, John and I used to speed on a bit with tacit agreement from the instructors. On the final month of the course the motor cycling pass list was posted on the door of the garage. There were just two failures, Cadets Reed and Yates!! We were ordered to report on Saturday afternoon for further instruction. One of the sergeants gave us the bikes, told us to go round the prescribed route and return the bikes to the garage because there would be nobody there.
We had a laugh about it but took the opportunity to flash round that circuit at T.T. speed, losing only half an hour of our Saturday afternoon off. Our names were added to the pass list on Monday morning!
An officer called David Tree, one of the well known theatrical family, headed by Beerbohm Tree, was an explosives “nut” ( I was to meet an even more dangerous one a few months later) Captain Tree took us onto his battered bit of beach with a selection of goodies in a sandbag. There was a deep, well made, slit trench for our protection. He had Mills bombs, Phosphorus bombs, and Sticky bombs, all of which can be fitted with a four second or a seven second fuse. Allow me to briefly explain that the well known Mills bomb, (That’s the one with its cast iron body divided into segments to cause maximum damage on exploding.) There is a screw plug in the bottom which reveals two holes, a large one going right through and a thinner one leading up the side, into the explosive. The fuse, kept separate, and colour coded as a 4 or 7 second type, has a detonator, which goes up the larger hole and the fuse and exploder up the smaller hole. At the top of the central hole is a steel firing pin with a groove round it, near the end, The pin is inserted in manufacture, from the bottom, against a strong spring, and held in place by a hinged “L” shaped lever, the bent over end fitting into the groove, The lever is secured by a split pin, passing through two lugs and preventing the lever from moving. The other bombs mentioned have a similar mechanism, fitted into a handle.
The sequence is this; the split pin is pulled out and the lever flies away. The spring bangs the firing pin onto the detonator, starting the fuse, which will detonate the bomb in 4 seconds.
After various demonstrations, witnessed from a head down position in the trench, the sticky bomb was shown. This was an anti tank weapon, although it would need a very brave or a very lucky man to get near enough to use it! It was a glass ball, like a small goldfish bowl, full of TNT and covered in stockinette which was impregnated with very powerful glue. The thing was provided with a handle, containing the fuse and firing mechanism. The bomb was smashed down onto the tank, deforming into a dome shape, a “shaped charge”. The handle is released, the bomber runs away and the charge explodes in 4 seconds.
Before continuing with this tedious tale, more technicalities;- “Drawers, cellular” were made of aertex, which, of course, does not stretch .and further more, they did not have an elasticated waist band, a single, large, white, cloth covered ,button being the only means of support.
“Overalls denim” were designed to wear over battledress, but for playing about on the beach in summer we simply wore the voluminous items.
The scene is set; David Tree handed me the sticky bomb and pointed out a three foot high piece of sleeper, sticking out of the sand, thirty feet away. His last instruction was to run like hell for the trench.
I stalked out to the piece of sleeper, removed the split pin and, holding tight to the handle, smashed the bomb down on the end of the wood, the glass breaking as planned. Then I let go, the lever flew away, with a “ping” and I turned and ran.
Unfortunately, at this very moment, the button on my underpants came off and the pants dropped down inside my overalls, finishing just above knee height, effectively hobbling me. Taking tiny steps, looking ridiculous, I got about half way to the trench when there was a mass shout of “GET DOWN”, I hit the beach as the bomb exploded. I suffered no damage, except to my dignity! The sleeper was shredded for about a foot of its height, looking like a gigantic piece of chewed liquorice root!
The training programme was interesting, even if a lot of it started by running up Welsh mountains! I particularly liked the plotting of areas taking bearings, using a prismatic compass, and the satisfaction, when drawing the plan afterwards, to find that the two ends coincided, or nearly so.
“Tewts” (Tactical exercises without troops) were good fun. A lecture room was set up like an office, with table, telephone and chairs, and a cadet would be asked to act as Troop commander and occupy the “Hot seat”. The instructors would give him problems, usually over the ‘phone, and everyone would watch with interest, as he tried to cope. If the problem involved the movement of troops, it was essential to remember that they must be accompanied by documentation and, above all, the unexpired portion of the day’s rations, this phrase being written in the Army’s tablets of stone! If the problem was beyond the wit of the “Troop commander”, the easy way out was to ring up the “Battery Captain” (Played by an instructor), who usually was helpful, but sometimes gave the wrong advice!
A couple of weeks into the Tonfanau saga we were individually interviewed by our squad officer, Captain Callister. He started off by saying that I seemed to be coping OK but that I had a reputation for being “Bloody minded” When I asked why; it seems that, when I was gassed at Shrivenham, I had launched a tirade against incompetent instructors and against the Army in general. I professed no recollection of saying it and made no further comment, even though I thought, privately, that I hadn’t said enough! Apropos that unfortunate incident, we heard that although there had, naturally, been a Court of Enquiry, the findings were never made public!
Towards the end of the course two events occurred which increased my stock in the eyes of authority. We had an exercise of the “Redland v Blueland” variety, our squad and “C” squad were allied against the other two groups. On the last night of make believe war, we had the job of taking over the enemy stronghold, in a wood, alongside the Tal-y-llin railway, at a place called Pandy. There was a hut in the wood and we were supposed to take the hut, (Their HQ.) There was a perimeter wire fence and there was no way that we could have got in undetected. It was decided that we do our best at three in the morning, when they might least expect it. The other squad was to go round to the back of the wood, while our squad was to enter from the railway line, create a lot of noise and draw the attention of the enemy from the back of the wood, giving our friends a better chance. To this end we equipped ourselves with thunderflashes, very large “bangers “Unlike the civilian firework, there was no blue touch paper, but a cap like a large safety match head. This cap had to be struck on a 2”by 1” board which was coated with a phosphorus compound. For safety reasons, I put the items separately, in my trouser pockets.
Stealthily and silently we crept up the railway, and seeing no sign of life, I crept under the bottom fence wire and got several yards into the compound before a rifle was stuck in my back and I was ordered to get up. I was grabbed by the arms and hustled towards the hut. As their attention was distracted as they opened the blackout curtain in the doorway, I put my hands in my trouser pockets and, on being told to “Get your bloody hands up” I raised them over my head, with a thunderflash in my right hand and the striker in my left. No one noticed the only illumination being from one small candle. They were more interested in finding out, from me, where the others were. There were, perhaps, six of them and an instructor officer as an umpire.
I brought my hands, together, struck the thunderflash and threw it at their feet, spitting out its rain of sparks. The explosion was impressive in the close confines of the hut, and, as I tried to get away, all six of them jumped on me, This was out of order, as they were all supposed to be dead, me included.- I just felt that I was dead with all that lot sitting on me! That was the end of the exercise and we all went home. I was as popular, with the powers that be, as sliced bread. Come to think of it, I don’t think sliced bread had been thought of in 1942!

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