In which Roy is put to work repairing Kentish airfields while Goering’s Luftwaffe try their best to prevent him
In late Autumn the Division moved to East Anglia and 221 Company were billeted at Woolverstone Hall near Ipswich, a large mansion in park land on the south bank of the river Orwell. We stayed here all winter, exercising and preparing for overseas duty. It was from here that Mary and I managed to fix our marriage on 6th December. (We were actually married in Reigate Registry Office - not at Woolverstone). Mary occasionally got leave from her ATS Unit and would come up to Ipswich and stay with a motherly old widow, Mrs Markham, in a cottage adjoining Woolverstone Hall. Other wives would also descend on the area and jolly times were had by one and all until, in June, we received our marching orders for overseas and moved to Sible Hedingham in Essex for kitting-out and loading stores and equipment on the transport for shipping. The latter work was wasted because the ship carrying the transport was torpedoed and we arrived in Egypt without transport.
After a day or two of sorting out, we stragglers were dispatched to Newark in Nottinghamshire to join our Unit, 221 Field Coy, which was being reformed there. There was a glorious heat-wave going on and very little to do, apart from swimming and boating on the river Trent and sampling the local brews, for we had very few arms or equipment, let alone transport. Managed to get a short leave at home, which was more than welcome, then back to Newark where the Company was gradually being re-equipped with old (First World War) American rifles and an assortment of old trucks i.e. furniture vans and flat-bodied lorries commandeered from civilian sources. Guaranteed to put the wind up any invading force! We were shortly sent off to Boston, Lincolnshire, to construct defences around The Wash. This did not last long and we assembled a rag-tag convoy and moved South to Sheldwich, near Faversham in Kent, for a short time. The Section was detached to carry out beach mine-laying in Sandwich Bay and were located in a large house at Monkton, near Manston Aerodrome. At this time the Battle of Britain was in full swing and it was fascinating to watch the white inter-woven condensation trails forming in the sky as the dog-fights progressed. After a bombing raid on Manston, the Unit was called in to help clear up and assist in removing a Spitfire from the roof of a hangar where it had been blown.
One night there was a panic stand-to and alert as it was expected that the German invasion was imminent and I recall doing a sentry spell before dawn and gazing sea-wards wondering just what to do, should the Hun appear! (Luckily he didn’t). Having scared Hitler away and secured the safety of the worthy inhabitants of South East Kent, Section 2 retreated to the outskirts of Maidstone, (i.e. Penenden Heath and The Bull pub), and within shouting distance of Company headquarters which had been established in Aylesford Friary - the incumbent Brothers having left for more peaceful climes. We spent a lot of the winter here and, apart from other probably quite unnecessary work, the company erected a Hamilton bridge over the Medway, adjacent to the old narrow stone Aylesford bridge. This bridge was still in use well after the war ended. At this time the ordnance depot who supplied spare parts for our transport was located in Reigate and this ensured frequent motorcycle trips via Oxted, with refreshment stops at The Bell!
In November, the Company became a Unit of the re-named 56 (London) Division RE. and adopted the Black Cat as the Divisional sign. To celebrate (?) this event a large scale exercise was undertaken in January 1941. This involved night-time convoys and the building of a bridge over the river at Cuckmere Haven in sleet and snow at around one o’clock in the morning. Shortly after, we moved to Sandling Park, a large Georgian estate at Hythe. Now overshadowed by the Channel Tunnel Terminal. The sappers were enjoying themselves preparing for the demolition of bridges over the Royal Military Canal on Romney Marsh, whilst we, in the Transport Section, sorted out our new vehicles - left hand drive Dodge 4X4 3 tonners and Chevrolet 15cwt trucks - and inventing urgent journeys to London for visits to families etc.! The new Divisional Commander, (one Bernard Montgomery - then unknown), was proving unpopular as, being a fitness freak himself, he had decreed early morning PT for all and sundry. However, the novelty soon wore off. Apart from this, Hythe proved quite a popular place, if only for a café which supplied great egg and chips!
In the summer of ’41 we moved to the Hawkhurst area and spent some time in a hutted camp at Sandhurst (Kent), just a very short step from The Greyhound pub, which was well enjoyed. Whilst at this location quite a lot of spare time was spent on trips to Tunbridge Wells - especially The Swan on the Pantiles. Mary would appear on her New Imperial and take me on the pillion to the odd get-together with other colleagues and their wives and girl-friends at this hostelry. We also took part in a combined exercise with the Home Guard, well up to ‘Dad's Army’ standard, which entailed yours truly riding his motor-cycle into an ambush of ‘Captain Mainwaring’s best’ who were lurking behind a hedge. When they ‘shot’ me I had to gracefully fall off and play dead!
Roy and Mary on their wedding day
Sandhurst, Kent. Second from left.