In which Roy joins the Territorial Army, trains as a driver and joins the Regular Army as war becomes inevitable
That same afternoon I was ordered to proceed with all haste to the War Office in Whitehall with an urgent dispatch. So, mounted on a trusty BSA, off I duly roared. After presenting the envelope to the bored reception clerk I was somewhat shattered to find, after he had nonchalantly ripped it open, to discover it was only a receipt for some stores! Meanwhile the Company was busy taking delivery of stores and transport to bring it onto a war footing. I was presented with a lance-corporal’s stripe and, even more importantly, a brand new 350cc Ariel ‘Red Hunter’ motor-cycle complete with sprung rear wheel and upswept exhaust pipes! This came about because there was a chronic shortage of military transport and we went round to the local showrooms and commandeered vehicles. This magnificent machine was a perk for the Section MT/NCO!
The thought of becoming entangled with the local Civil Defence organisation for the duration of the war did not appeal to me so, following the Munich crisis of 1938, myself, and my colleagues Eric (Punch) Simmons and Geoff Cornford offered our services to the Territorial Army. As the army was only too pleased to accept any old Tom, Dick or Harry we were duly signed on (with the minimum of fuss) by the London Divisional Royal Engineers at their Duke of York’s Headquarters, Chelsea. This momentous event occurred on 6th October 1938 and we were assigned to 221st Field Company for initial training. This consisted of a weekly parade lasting about three hours on a Tuesday evening, which involved some arms drill and square-bashing. After a few weeks of this, when it was realised that I had some driving experience (especially on a Dust Lorry!), I was transferred to the Motor Transport Section and the fun began! At this time the MT Section consisted of two or three CDF Morris Commercial 6-wheeled, 30 cwt, winch trucks and a similar amount of Morris Commercial 15 cwt trucks. These were put to use on Tuesday evenings circulating round Battersea Park and occasionally round the West End assessing the diverse talents of hopeful drivers.
In the spring of 1939 the unit would descend on Penton Hook Island, on the river near Staines, where a hutted camp existed for weekend exercises. This was more popular for the adjoining pub, The Swan, than for its exercises! In addition to these week-end frolics we attended a long week-end training exercise over Easter at Brompton Barracks, Chatham, our first introduction to Regular Army life. For the first fortnight in August the unit descended on Swingate (overlooking Dover Harbour) for the annual training camp. It rained most of the time and as we were employed digging tunnels through the chalk cliffs, life was not too pleasant. After the first week an SOS was received from the London Scottish who were camped at Beaulieu in the New Forest. Their camp was flooded out and they urgently required duck-boards. The whole Unit was employed in the non-stop production of these articles and the MT section set off in convoys to deliver them to the sinking Scots.
I well remember shepherding one of these convoys, a night-time adventure, mounted on a 500cc BSA. On the return trip the following night I nodded off to sleep and ended up in a hedge! Finished the trip in the back of a lorry. Strangely enough the convoy was halted for a time at the bottom of Oxted High Street, outside The Wheatsheaf pub, but as it was around 4.00am I was unable to call home for a drink! This camp proved to be our last parade as Territorials for, on September 1st 1939, we were mobilised into the Regular Army.
So, on this fateful Friday, we ‘Three Musketeers’ said a fond farewell to the Council Offices at around mid-day and proceeded, courtesy of Geoff Cornford’s old Morris Ten, to Merstham where the car was left with Geoff’s uncle. We then trained to Victoria and the Duke of York’s HQ and a state of chaos. Eventually we were marched round to the Guard’s depot at Chelsea barracks and issued with Lee Enfield rifles and then on to a large empty house in Cadogan square which had been taken over as temporary billets.
The following morning, no doubt to the delight of the upmarket residents of the Square, we were marched to Chelsea pier and embarked on a Thames pleasure boat for a trip up-river to Hampton Court, followed by a further march to the (now defunct) Hurst Park Racecourse. We were uncomfortably installed in the refreshment rooms situated beneath the main grandstand. Sleeping on the tiled floor without bedding was not to be recommended! On Sunday morning, the 3rd September, a kit inspection was ordered and everyone duly laid out their belongings in the prescribed manner on the concrete forecourt in front of the grandstand. Very shortly after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast that we were now at war, the air raid warning sirens sounded.
This caused a minor panic in the officer ranks who feared that the neat lines of kit would attract the full fury of the Luftwaffe! Everyone was hustled back to the refreshment rooms, (leaving the offending kits outside, of course), where we were ordered to keep our heads down below the refreshment counters! One over-excited (or scared) junior officer went so far as to draw his pistol (probably unloaded!) to enforce the order. When it eventually became clear that there was to be no air raid (a false alarm) the war was allowed to proceed in peace!
A Morris Commercial
A BSA 500cc
PM Neville Chamberlain announces that we are at war with Germany