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Surveyor and Saxaphone Player in the First Survey Regiment, Royal Artillery

by Dunstable Town Centre

Contributed by 
Dunstable Town Centre
People in story: 
Douglas Derby
Location of story: 
Scotland, Sout East England, Belgium
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 February 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by the Dunstable At War Team on behalf of Douglas Derby and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

I was engaged as a Surveyor in a professional office in London but naturally enough at the beginning of the war, they gave me notice and I left in the middle of October. I then had one or two temporary jobs, partly with a friend of mine, who was working with the Great Western Railway and we had quite a few good times planning extensions to wartime factories. One was in the sugar beet factory in Whittington, were we spent 3 or 4 days carrying out a survey for an extra rail line. Then I thought I’d better look around and see what the army had to offer and found that a local organisation working with the county council, were forming a surveyors and engineers unit to go over to France. When I had a word with them, they said that they had enough people but that they would keep me in mind. They were sent out forward of our lines and within a week of them arriving in France, were all captured and spent the whole of the war in prisoner of war camp.

We then waited for my call up papers; being a surveyor I had ordinary, preliminary training in an artillery unit at Brighton (a general call-up station). After the formal training certain of us were given an exam but it was so simple I just filled in the forms without thinking really. They wanted to sort out the people that could cope with written work or map making. That resulted in me being posted to the First Survey Regiment, Royal Artillery, at the time stationed in Scotland. We had quite a journey and as soon as we got there we were met at the station by a large van. As I stepped towards the tailboard somebody called out “is Darby here?” I said “yes”. “Right I’m the sergeant that runs the unit band and we’ve heard that you’re not bad on the saxophone. Oh good, I see you’ve bought it with you. Right, 8 o’clock tonight, canteen, first rehearsal!” That began a very, very interesting and informative development because right though until I was demobbed six years later, I was given all sorts of privileges. I worked in the adjutant’s office and whenever there was any work to be done I was called but mainly we formed a little band and were in great demand. We were stationed in Yorkshire for quite some time, training after Dunkirk; there were various ATS units, land army people and canteen staff and every Thursday night, it was open night and the band played on!

We were then transferred to another unit and I’m not going to say it was arranged but on the morning when the whole of the first unit was taken down to the station, I asked the sergeant major — “I’ve got enough kit to carry, what do I do with my saxophone?” He said “keep quiet, Darby. If you tell anybody else you’re on a charge but you’re not coming with us. There’s plenty of work for you to do here and we’ve got you posted to somewhere, where they’ll want you”. From there we went to another unit, which had just been formed because they knew there would be artillery work wanted in England. Well, that suited me down the ground. Then we were sent down to Salisbury Plain for a time for further training on detailed work and then the whole unit moved down to the south coast, stationed either at Canterbury or Hastings. We didn’t know it of course but we were in preparation for D-Day, although it became quite obvious from the build up of troops and so on.

I think its true to say that we had no real equipment as we know of today. All we had were ordinary microphones but we set up a network, more or less across the whole of South East England, which was to pick up any noises from the other side. I suppose somebody knew that it was going to be the terror weapon, the V1’s, the buzz bombs, and our network picked up the sound. We could plot it as it come in because of course once it set off, it was always in a straight line and by reversing that we could tell roughly where it had come from. By this time our unit was nearly 1100 strong with all sorts of meteorologists, RAF liaison, Royal Engineers and so on keeping complete control of that area of South East England. If on the news bulletins you heard our bombers were out again over Pas de Calais, that was as a result of some of our work.

I remember the first one coming in, or one of the first ones; I was off duty actually and while I was walking back from the local forces canteen I heard a very strange sound. There was a warden on the other side of the road saying, “what sort of a plane is that?” I said, “I don’t know, it isn’t a plane and it’s not like any of the German engines that I know.” He said “I think you’d better get back to your unit, don’t you?” That was one of the earliest V1 plottings that we located.

Germans of course are as clever as we are, or they were then. When they found out what was happening, they made moveable launching pads. So whatever our bombers did, they missed them because the V1 launchers had moved away. Off duty, we used to sit up on the cliffs and watch the Americans, who had a technique of flying alongside the V1s and flipping their wings, flip them over. That went well, but only for a few weeks as once they tipped one over, it landed on a school some few miles inland and all the pupils were killed. They then cancelled that way of doing it and we were very much engaged in positioning rockets right along the front of Hastings. Our survey people carried out proper positioning of 8, 16 and 24 rocket launchers, which were quite effective. Still some of them got through to London but many were caught up on the balloon barrage.

On one particular short leave I went to London to see my Aunt but spent the whole of one night underneath the shelter in the front room. It was quite a reasonable visit but we didn’t do much, except sit there and listen to see if anything came a little bit too near! I also cycled quite a bit and one incident I do remember was putting the bike on the early morning train to get home and then cycling across London to St Pancras station. I got there quite easily as I knew most of the streets, having worked there before the war but as I got to the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, a policeman and several wardens were standing right across the street. “Where are you going? You can’t go there,” they said. An unexploded mine had not landed but was caught up in the overhead wires and they were evacuating the area. I got on my bike again and cycled over to St Pancras via a different route and went home for a good 24 hours leave.

As the fighting moved northwards it was decided that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take our whole unit over to Belgium. We went in over Mulberry Harbour; it was a very rocky and we had a very seesaw journey from the boat until we got the trucks onto the land. The place was absolutely just as you could imagine, completely churned up everywhere but fortunately it was dry. When we got up the slopes further on, what was up the top? A Salvation Army van! “Want a cup of Tea?” I’ve always remembered the Salvation Army after that! We moved along to somewhere near Brussels and set our unit up there. We had shifts of 8 hours on and 8 hours off then 16 hours off so you could carry out your other chores. Things died down as we got further and further up into the country. One particular day I borrowed the unit bike and decided to take a look at Brussels, as I had not been there before. About half way into my journey I was stopped by the military police and had at bit of a job explaining why I was there! They told me to go back to my unit and stay there. By the time I got back, I realised they had broken through the French line in the Battle of the Bulge and for the next 3 or 4 days we were confined to barracks. There was so much noise with all the troop tanks, vehicles, etc that came thundering through from all units, American as well. Of course we now know they stopped the Bulge breaking through into our territory.

We then had no time for the band but we did have some very good friends including 2 or 3 musicians in the unit. We were also befriended by a professional architect, a gentleman; the man who had designed the chapel for the former Queen of Belgium. We had a musical evening on VE day after I borrowed a saxophone that had been tucked it away in an attic to prevent it being taken by German troops. We had a very good concert that night and then it was a question of waiting to be demobbed.

I was then posted to a unit right on the Danish border with the job of looking after 3 SS men who were being held in the barracks prison. There, I approached the senior officer who suggested keeping up morale by having some music, well he told me, “you’ve got yourself a job, organise a band”. I had previously written back home on official paper and asked for my own saxophone to be sent over. Father crated it up in his factory in Luton and within a week it was delivered to me with no damage at all. We then looked around for other musicians and with no difficulty at all we found a pianist, a bass player, guitarist, trumpet player and started off by playing a lot of the popular tunes without any music. One day a chap came up to me and said, ”I play the trombone, do you think I could come along?” I said, “You are!” He came along and said “ I don’t know what my band master would say, I’ve never played this kind of music before, I’m in the Salvation Army.” But of course with the training he had received, within 2 to 3 weeks he was able to perform solos. We found a permanent place where we held weekly dances, which lasted for about 6 or 7 months. Some of the older residences asked us to play in their village hall and so we often went out to different places to play. I had a really happy time there. I had duties to do during the day, rehearsals if necessary, or what we called blanket drill, asleep in the afternoon as we would be playing late that night!

We then moved back through Germany and into France on our way home. At one staging camp they knew I was amongst the people in that particular unit and I was asked to play in the interval, for a band that were entertaining people in the local village hall. For about half an hour I played solo; it was quite an experience. I was then demobbed in Northampton and caught the train back home to Luton.

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