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15 October 2014
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Memories of the Early Years of the War

by weymouthlibrary

Contributed by 
People in story: 
James Taylor
Location of story: 
Brighton, Salisbury Plain
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 February 2005

When war was declared on 3rd September 1939, my brother John and I were both working in Southampton. John was an assistant engineer with the municipal authority and I was on the staff of Lloyds Bank at its branch in Shirley. I was 26 years old and John was 20. I had completed my banking examinations and had applied to London University to read for an external degree; John still had part of his final examination to take.

Life was good. Was earning £178 a year, our lodgings cost us £1 a week each and we could play a round of golf on Southampton’s municipal course for 1/6 97 and a half pence). A young man earning £200 a year could marry and buy a suitable home for £400. All this was to change forever. John’s birthday on December 31st made him eligible for the army and he was duly called up, joining the Royal Artillery.

In January 1940, I was transferred to the Bank’s branch at Chesham in Buckinghamshire to replace a member of staff who had been called up with the Territorial Army. In April 1940, Lloyds Bank agreed to release all staff who wished to join the forces on 20th April. I enlisted in the Royal Artillery with a request to join my brother who was serving with the 41st Survey Training Regiment at Preston Barracks, Brighton. I was released to the reserve and, pending further orders returned to my parents’ home at Ryde in the Isle of Wight.

I was ordered to join my unit on 16th May and having said goodbye to my parents and my sisters, I set off for Brighton, arriving at the barracks at lunchtime, together with several other new recruits. We were fed, provided with uniforms and allotted sleeping quarters. Later in the day I found my brother. He was already wearing the two stripes of a full bombardier. With his civil engineering qualifications he had been appointed to teach survey to new recruits. I soon lost him again, however, as he had been recommended for a commission a week later he departed for Larkhill on Salisbury Plain where he joined the 122 Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU).

Meanwhile we settled down to our initial training. In our free time we were allowed to go into Brighton. There were no transport problems as the tramcars passed the barrack gates. The weather was fine and all was peaceful. Then on 29th May news of news of the situation at Dunkirk reached us and the local people began to cast nervous glances across the channel.

We were hardly in a position to meet an invasion. There were perhaps some 1500 new recruits in Preston Barracks and a company of Royal Army Service Corps in another part of the town. However, someone must have seen the need for action to be taken because the next day we were transported to the seafront where we were put to work filling sandbags and building a Lewis gun post. Actually we built it twice because the officer in charge did not like our first effort! What use this was to be against a determined attach by a strong enemy force we could not see. The first time we fired the gun to test it, it jammed!

None of us had any illusions about our chances of survival against any sort of invading force. Our squad sergeant had already told us that there were not enough rifles to go round and ammunition was in short supply. Nevertheless, guards were now to be mounted every night along the seafront and, one early morning, I found myself on sentry duty outside Gresham Hotel. I was marching up and down to keep warm when a lady emerged from a nearby house carrying a cup of tea. “You must be very cold, young man” she said proffering the teacup. I looked right and left — nobody in sight- so I leant my rifle against the wall, thanked my benefactress and drank the tea — all highly irregular! I had only three rounds of ammunition which, with the rifle; I handed to my relief at 8o’clock. In between spells of guard duty we continued our training.

Early in June we were all set an examination in mathematics. The questions were not difficult, most of them requiring a knowledge of trigonometry and the use of logarithms. Those of us who passed the test were posted to school of Artillery at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain. I had spent only four weeks in Brighton.

The School of Artillery was a vast establishment. There were a host of officer and NCO instructors, a depot artillery regiment, the School of Survey, the 122 OCTU and even a horsed regiment of field artillery plus all the administrative staff. T he school of Artillery Survey was situated on a rise overlooking Stonehenge with fine views of the surrounding countryside. The weather was beautiful and after spending a month on the south coast we were amazed at the peace and quiet of our new surroundings. Only the occasional rumble of gunfire on the distant artillery ranges disturbed the fine summer days.

We attended lectures in the mornings and usually spent the afternoons outside doing practical work. We were soon to discover that gunnery was not just a matter of loading a gun and firing it but a highly technical business. We were introduced to the science of ballistics and the intricacies of survey. Most afternoons were spent working with theodolites. We were well situated for this practical work because of the panoramic view over Stonehenge and the surrounding countryside. In the classroom we used the data obtained from our practical work to calculate bearing, distance and triangulation. Map reading was also included in this particular area of study.

At weekends we were given passes to go into Salisbury. This was a regular treat for us, as we had no guard duties to perform as we were on a course. Our only obligation was to supply a NCO to remain in camp at weekends in case of emergency. I have reason to remember one such Saturday evening. I had recently been promoted to the rank of lance bombardier and was on duty. I was sitting in the NAAFI with a glass of beer when the door opened and a soldier from the guardroom came in. “You duty bombardier?” he asked. I nodded. “Resolution” he said. This was the code word for enemy invasion! “Don’t be ridiculous” I said, “there’s nobody here for a practice drill”. “Not a practice” he said, “it’s genuine”. “What about the church bells?” I said. “Never heard any” he said and departed.

I finished my beer. I thought of Drake and the Spanish Armada. He at least had some men and ships standing by! All my lot were whooping it up in the pubs in Salisbury and the whole area was as silent as the grave. I had to do something so I went through all the barrack huts. They were all empty except for the last one where a solitary soldier was lying on his bed. He said he had not felt like going out. I told him my news and said he must dress, bring rifle, ammunition and gas cape then meet me in the NAAFI. When he arrived I purchased some chocolate, a packet of biscuits and a bottle of lemonade to ward of starvation and proceeded to our defensive positions, which had been prepared some time earlier.

Fortunately it was a fine summer night which was a bonus. The evening dragged on with no sound except for the number of vehicles moving along the road about half a mile to the south. About eleven thirty the sound of unmelodious singing in the distance heralded the return of possible reinforcements. In due course Sergeant Smith, my squad sergeant appeared. “What are you doing down there bombadier?”he asked. I explained. He headed off to the guardroom and ten minutes later reappeared. “It’s alright bombardier, “he said, “You cab stand down, panic’s over”. I thanked my companion for his support and went to bed.

The next day I asked Sergeant Smith about the call out and he said there had been some garbled message misconstrued in the guardroom. I never heard anything more about this false alarm but oddly enough, a few days later an order was posted requiring all personnel to pass on or leave fully equipped with rife and ammunition at all times. After this going into Salisbury caused a certain amount of havoc among the local populace, particularly in the cinema, where we struggled to our seats clutching our rifles. I cannot remember having inflicted any injuries on the people already seated but nobody ever complained.

Early in August some of us were recommended for a commission and were called to an interview with our commanding officer Lt Col Green. When my turn came I was asked if I had any army connections. I replied that my father had been called up in 1914 with the Hampshire Yeaomanry, was commissioned in 1916 and served for the rest of the war with the 15th Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment. This seemed to prove that I was an ideal choice for a commission and no more questions were asked! Our course finished at the end of August and we were granted ten days leave which I spent with my parents in the Island.

I returned to Larkhill in mid September and reported for duty as an officer cadet with the 122 Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU). Our uniforms remained unchanged but we were distinguished as cadets by the wearing of white shoulder flashes and a white band round our caps.

We were soon on the parade ground and became imbued with a desire to be smarter than anyone else. The whole area echoed to the stamping of our feet! In the classroom we received instruction in military law, organisation and administration of the army, motor transport and vehicle maintenance, signals and communications, and of course gunnery. This latter entailed exercises on the ranges with actual firing and gun drill and most important, the observation of fire from an observation post (OP). We soon made friends in our groups. I had one particular friend who had been on the survey course with me: his name was “Mick” Miller. Actually, his initials were FWL but he was never anything else but Mick. We did not realise then that we were destined to soldier together throughout the war.

We were about halfway through our training when one day we were out on Salisbury Plain driving along in various vehicles when a message came through on our radio sets ordering us back to barracks immediately. On our return we were paraded and informed that a cadet named Alan Sutherland had been taken ill with meningitis. This was serious and precautions had to be taken. Who were the cadets who slept in the beds each side of him? Cadets Taylor and Miller! Mick and I were put in quarantine straight wawy in case of the spread of infection. We slept in a separate room, had separate meals and were excused all duties. This however, didn’t last long as we both remained healthy and Alan eventually recovered.

Early in March 1941 we sat our examinations and were duly commissioned second lieutenants. Military tailors arrived and we were measured for our uniforms. Meanwhile there remained the question of to which units we were to be posted. Many of the cadets had reasons for applying to certain regiments but neither Mick nor I had any preference and after a few days we found our names on Part II Orders. We were both posted to the 57th (Newfoundland) Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery.

We departed for a few days leave.

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