Lt. George Somerwill’s Diary

 

In 1940, Lieutenant George Somerwill served in 366 Battery, having swapped from his previous position in ‘D’ Troop, 367 Battery (to which I believe my father Gunner Eric West was attached) just before the German invasion of Belgium.  Lt. George Somerwill is mentioned in Graham Brooks’ book Grand Party and was nicknamed “Slim”.

Pre-war, George Somerwill had been a Veterinary student and married Jill in 1940. Jill Somerwill is mentioned several times in his diary.  After Dunkirk, in the re-organisation of the Regiment, Somerwill was transferred to a different unit, 14th Super Heavy Battery (a single, enormous railway-mounted gun).  By mid-1942 he had been promoted to Captain.

In the early 1990’s Somerwill attended one of the 140th Regiment reunions (see ‘140th Regiment Reforms’).  There he met Martin Felstead and the two subsequently met at his home in Woodbridge, Suffolk where they were able to look through his personal archive of papers and documents.

This diary, written in the 1980’s or 1990’s and transcribed in 2020 by Martin Felstead was part of that archive.  I am very grateful to Martin for allowing access to this previously unpublished record.  I have added sub-headings and made some minor editing changes.

The Diary

Second Lieutenant George Somerwill, 140th Army Field Regiment R.A. (T.A.)

(Transcribed by Martin Felstead, June 2020.)

The newly-formed Regiment 

‘…The 140th or “one-four-O” was a T.A. unit formed early in 1939 from an older regiment, the 92nd Field.  The whole T.A. had thus been doubled in size soon after the 1938 Munich crisis. Before the war both regiments had been based in the Clapham, Lewisham, Woolwich area so there was no lack of cockney wit and humour amongst the volunteers.  Senior officers, warrant officers and NCOs had come from the 92nd, mostly with promotion.  Junior officers came from the ranks of the Honourable Artillery Company and the Gunners were part of the surge of recruits who volunteered for the T.A. after the Munich crisis.

Dursley, 1940

‘…[In the winter of 1939] an epidemic of influenza was sweeping the country and few of us escaped; the military hospitals were swamped and as I became ill on week-end leave was instructed to stay at home.  I thus missed the last week of the course and at home received a letter posting me to the 140th Field Regiment at Dursley, Gloucestershire.

Early in February 1940 I arrived at Dursley station, where I was met by a small truck which took me to Regimental HQ in the offices of a disused factory, the bulk of which was now a barracks.  I was warmly welcomed by Rowlands, the assistant adjutant who soon informed me that the Regiment would be going overseas within a month, probably to the near East.

D Troop, 367 Battery

‘…I found myself posted to “D” Troop of 367 Battery.  This was commanded by a Captain [Coll Lorne] McDougall and until my arrival there was only one other officer, a 2/Lt. named Budd, inevitably called “Blossom”.  The total strength was nearly 80 souls and there were four 18-pounder guns of First World War vintage but with their original wooden-spoked, iron-tyred wheels replaced with a more up-to-date undercarriage.  As the modern pneumatic-tyred wheels were much smaller than the originals the guns tended to be top-heavy.

The Troop Commander, although a dour Scot, was friendly and easy to get along with, as was “Blossom”.  Both were under 30 and very competent; after a few days I was diverted to assist the Battery Transport Officer, Roddy Hawes, who, although only a 2nd Lt. was 38 years old.  He was an old Etonian, inclined to worry unnecessarily, yet critical of other officers in the Battery except the odd one or two whose social background met with his approval.  Luckily he was immediately subordinate to the Battery Captain (i.e. second-in-command of the battery), a cynical but splendid little Australian who at the age of 16 had been a Private at Gallipoli and in private life was a city tea broker.  Captain Westley was not unduly impressed by Hawes or by Eton!  I had been deputed to to help because many new vehicles were expected.  For the task of taking them over and preparing them for embarkation, Hawes required an assistant.

Royal Visit to Dursley

‘..Only a few days after joining the Regiment the whole of III Army Corps, of which we were then a part, was inspected by the King.  It was a cold but still and sunny day and the units were drawn up along a long straight road not far from Tetbury but without a building in sight.  Their Majesties passed directly in front of me, so I had my second close look at them; the first being at the Royal Veterinary College in 1937.

February 1940

‘..On 16th February 1940, in a blizzard, the whole battery went on four days embarkation leave.  I travelled by train to Southampton, accompanied as far as Salisbury by Lt. Jeffery, a former regular Sergeant recently commissioned from the ranks.  Snow was piled high beside the tracks as we crossed Salisbury Plain and many telephone poles leaned drunkenly or were snapped in two.   After two days, Jill and I travelled to Bristol where she was to join her sister staying at Brislington.   As I was still Assistant Transport Officer my duties took me to Bristol on two occasions, which enabled me to make brief visits to Brislington.  Later Jill came to Dursley for three days.

Preparations to depart Dursley

‘..One afternoon at about this time a convoy of new “gun tow-ers” (4-wheel drive tractors with accommodation for the gun crew of seven) arrived at Dursley, all driven by young women in khaki.  Wolf whistles from the battery drivers, already assembled to take over, were received somewhat frostily by the ladies. They were members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), and organisation first created in the South African War to enable well bred ladies to “do their bit” in the Veld as nurses and incidentally see something of their husbands or boyfriends.  By 1940 the nursing function had long since been ditched for more mundane activities and this particular group were delivering vehicles to units from the depots. Suddenly I heard a voice say “Hallo Somerwill, how do you like the army?”; it belonged to a former RVC student, in fact the one who hunted with the Quorn!  It was now my turn to be frosty, feeling it somewhat beneath the dignity of a subaltern to be thus addressed by a Private, even if she was a FANY! By 1941 the FANY had been absorbed by the more democratic Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS, now the Women’s Royal Army Corps).

To Southampton and France, March 1940

‘…A few days later all our guns and vehicles moved off at dawn for Southampton to be shipped to France and I returned gladly to my Troop able to relax a bit. This was just as well as I was suffering from the after effects of Small Pox vaccination. Never having been vaccinated as an infant my temperature shot up and an enormous purple swelling appeared on my arm. Meanwhile Jill who had been due to re-visit Dursley went down with German Measles.  The kind Australian Westley, hearing of this, gave me a job requiring a trip to Bristol and an opportunity to say goodbye.  Three days later, before dawn, we marched to Dursley station and entrained for Southampton docks.

At Southampton we embarked on the ex-Channel Island ferry “Lorina”; my father, in his Trinity House uniform, was at the quayside and met the C.O. and others.  I later heard Col. Odling describe him to someone else rather aptly as “a dapper little man in a P-jacket”.

SS Lorina

Soon we slipped away from the quay to anchor off Portsmouth to await darkness and a convoy.  When we came on deck in the morning we lay alongside the same dock at Le Havre where three and half years earlier I had disembarked from the Normandie; I could almost say that the same communist and “Front Populaire” slogans were on the walls.  At this time the French Communist Party was against the war, taking as their cue the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939.  The crane drivers of that political persuasion liked nothing better than to “accidentally” drop heavy equipment from a great height when unloading and I soon learned that this indeed had already happened to one of our gun-towers.

Bolbec

‘…A train took us the 25km to Bolbec, the men travelling in the vans of First World War fame marked “Hommes 40, Chevaux 8”.  Just outside the town we were reunited with our advance party, guns and vehicles which were parked amongst farms and orchards. I was comfortably billeted in the Place Carnot close to the Hotel de l’Europe where we had our mess.

Hotel de l’Europe Bolbec, 1930s

The next evening a German reconnaissance plane flew over the town without apparent hindrance, apart from an air raid siren.

Courcelles-le-Comte, March 1940

‘…Two days after arrival we set off eastwards, my first experience of driving in a regimental convoy which took up seven miles of road, the individual vehicles trying to keep a steady interval of 75 yards as a precaution against air attack. This period, however, was still part of the “Phoney War” and we saw no aircraft, hostile or otherwise.  After dark we reached a staging point at Alliers on the Somme; it was cold and raining and by the time we had got the vehicles parked and the men billeted and fed it was midnight and I for one was ravenous with hunger.  By early afternoon the next day we reached our first destination, Courcelles-le-Comte, a large village in the Pas-de-Calais.

The men of my Troop were billeted in barns on the Laboure family’s farm while I was accommodated in the farmhouse.  In the evenings, before bedtime, I was privileged to sit by the fireside and take coffee with the family.  M. Laboure was a Sergeant in the French Army, on “Permission Agricole” to see to the spring planting.  He and his wife were of about forty and his elderly parents lived in the farmhouse together with the two children, Charles and Augustille, then aged about ten and seven.  We remained here a week doing some training, including field firing.  With our move overseas we had been transferred from III to I Army Corps.  The Brigadier commanding the I Corps artillery was the late Ambrose Pratt, a regular soldier of modest mien and great character much-loved and admired by all ranks.  His subsequent career was to some extent blighted by his falling out with and refusing to kow-tow to Montgomery, at a time when the latter was his immediate superior.  Ambrose was especially good at instilling confidence into young officers as I soon found out when he conducted field firing at Monchy, near Arras, site of heavy fighting in WW1.

George Formby

‘…It was not all work though as my diary indicates that I had dinner in Bapaume one night and another evening saw George Formby, a well known Lancastrian comedian of that period.  At this time the first mail from England arrived, including two letters from Jill.

Auchy-lez-Orchies, March-April 1940

‘…On 19th March we left Courcelles and moved via Arras and Douai to Auchy-lez-Orchies, close to the Belgian frontier.  The men were quartered in cottages throughout the village and I found myself in a none too clean farmhouse, finding the family surly and unresponsive, a far cry from the Laboures, who had invited me for wine on the eve of departure.  We were to remain here for six weeks, sometimes manning for days and nights on end gun-pits prepared in 1939 by our predecessors and which were part of the defences against possible attack from the direction of Belgium.

The frontier was well marked at night by lights as an insurance against accidental air attack on Belgian neutrality.  We had numerous night moves in convoy close to the border so that we became familiar with the roads and what we called “flaps” were frequently ordered to test our ability to turn out of bed and be ready to move off.  About 14th April there was a genuine flap when intelligence got wind of an alleged imminent attack on Belgium following the forced landing of a German airman on whom secret orders were found.  This was most probably an elaborate disinformation plot hatched by the Germans themselves.  There was some German air-reconnaissance over our area at this time to which the British anti-aircraft guns reacted without any success.  These were the first shots I had seen fired in anger, but all soon became quiet again and on 26th April we gladly left Auchy, by night, for the Somme area where we were to conduct exercises in movement.

Transfer to 366 Battery

‘…We had left the monotonous landscape of the Nord Region for the fair chalk downs of the Somme, just bursting into spring. I found myself billeted in Toutencourt in a pleasant room over a sweet smelling hay barn.  The family were friendly though not especially forthcoming.  A mild shock now awaited me; one of the Captains of our sister Battery (366) was about to be invalided home to England and was to be replaced by promotion.  The resulting vacancy for a subaltern was to be filled by a former Lieutenant of 367 Battery now at the base at Boulogne.  He was not liked by the 366 Battery Commander who persuaded the C.O. to send him to 367 to take my place while I was posted to 366, to become G.P.O. (Gun Position Officer) C Troop.  This was a small step up for me as in D Troop I had been, as Troop Officer, subordinate to the GPO.  I may have been luckier than I knew as four weeks later, Waterman, still with D Troop, was killed in action.  Even had I survived I should have been a prisoner along with the rest of D Troop survivors.

Major Graham Brooks, 366 Battery

‘..On 3rd May I bade ‘D’ Troop farewell and was driven the 3 km to the pretty hilltop village of Herissart.  I felt slight trepidation having heard that my new Battery Commander, Major Graham Brooks MC, was an extrovert character very different from the school-masterly Major Milton, soon destined to die of wounds. “Brooky” was noted for his verbal skill and his rudeness to those who fell foul of him; in civil life he was a barrister working for the Daily Express and a friend of Beaverbrook.

In appearance Major Brooks was not unlike Churchill, if one can imagine Churchill with a monocle.  He also resembled the Prime Minister in possessing one American parent, the gift of eloquence and the ability to be very rude even to those he favoured.  He professed to despise the “regular army mentality” and the public schools, although he admitted that some regular officers transcended these shortcomings.  He claimed to have been educated in the United States and later at Heidelburg University which he left in 1914.  While there he had been a reserve Lieutenant in the Uhlans [Polish-Lithuanian light cavalry] with whom he attended manoeuvres.  He professed to “hate the Hun” on account of his arrogance, a quality not lacking in himself.  He was proficient in the German language.

Arriving about 8.30 a.m. I found the village deserted by its military guests and the officers Mess empty except for one orderly, who informed me that all had left at 6 a.m. on a battery exercise.  I noted a tall heap of letters awaiting censorship; here was an opportunity to relieve the returning officers of an evening chore and also perhaps to learn something of the state of morale in 366 Battery.  And so it worked out; it seemed Brooks was not disliked by the troops although they were bored by the Phoney War and when the warriors returned I was made very welcome, not least because the letters had been disposed of.

The next morning at 6 a.m. the Battery was off again, myself mounted on a motorcycle riding behind the Major’s 8-cwt wireless truck; I was on trial, sent hither and thither with instructions to Troop Commanders and with my own job to do on arrival, namely bring the four guns of C Troop into action.  Luckily my Troop Commander, Basil Strachan, had until this day been GPO himself (he was the newly promoted officer referred to earlier) so was most helpful.  An efficient and kindly man of about 28 years he later lost an arm in N. Africa.  By the time we got back to our billets those of us on motorcycles were coated in chalk dust as many of the roads were unpaved and the weather sunny and dry.

Somme Battlefields, May 1940

‘…This lasted a few more days. We were exercising among the cemeteries and memorials of the Somme battlefields; to anyone who had read WW1 memoirs as I had, particularly those of Siegfried Sassoon, the names of the villages we passed through were quite familiar; Corbie, Bray, Becquincourt and a bit further north Thiepval, Auchonvillers, Mailly-Maillet, euphonious names of tragic memory. Once the Major stopped the exercise, claiming that he could identify the remains of his 1917 gun-pits (certainly there were indentations in the chalk) and gave the assembled multitude a talk about it.

The next five days we continued our exercises as the weather became warmer and more dusty.  One day I overheard Brooks say, in reference to myself, “he’s done extraordinarily well in the few days he has been here”.  Perhaps he meant me to hear him, he believed in stick and carrot tactics.

Celebrations

One Saturday evening during this time I motor-biked  over to Courcelles to visit the Laboures.  The following day my diary records a minor happening when the Battery, having been given an afternoon of rest, most of HQ Troop which consisted of signallers, drivers, cooks and others not directly serving the guns, got drunk and made noisy nuisances of themselves in the village.  This happened to be my first day as duty officer in my new environment and on instructions from Brooks I took a party of NCOs from the other Troops and rounded up the drunks.  Fortunately most of them were now helpless (they had been mixing wine and Pernod, so it was said) and they were unceremoniously bundled into the village hall and locked up under guard.  Brooks gave them two hours to sober up then as Orderly Officer I had to parade the whole battery when he gave the offenders a dressing down and a warning to everyone.  He certainly had the gift o’ the gab.  All estaminets were put out of bounds.

German Invasion, 10th May 1940

‘…On 9th May, a Friday, we had the afternoon off as we were to leave later on a night exercise. I visited D Troop then went on my motorbike to Amiens where I wandered through the cathedral, then had some tea.  The exercise started as planned and during the night we heard distant crashes and saw lightning flashes in the sky.  At 6 a.m. from the BBC we heard that Belgium and Holland had been invaded and Lille bombed.  We hurried back to Herissart while Brooks went to RHQ.  Plan “D” (the counter-invasion plan) was in operation; I Corps was to move into Belgium; our own Regiment was to move eastwards at 13.00 hours.  I rushed to my cottage billet to pick up my kit and say good-bye to the dear old couple whose humble abode it was.  He was the village cobbler and they had a daughter in London married to a WW1 soldier.  They looked sad and apprehensive though putting on a brave face.

So we set off for our RV at Toutencourt with RHQ and 367 Battery, with Brooks in the lead and disdaining his steel helmet, which just become fashionable in accordance with Corps orders, in favour of the red and gold artillery forage cap. The canvas top of his truck was rolled back so that the Churchillian figure could stand erect to survey his command spread out along the road behind; and to receive the acclaim of most of the village inhabitants who had turned out, cheering, to see us go.  This was the first display of mass emotion I had seen since my arrival in France and was to continue through every village we passed through until darkness. There were four motorcyclists, of whom I was one and the others Harry Baird (Transport Officer), the Battery Sgt-Major, and a Dispatch Rider (D.R.), all in close attendance on our commander, from whom we got the reflected glory.  To such an extent that on two occasions when stopped at a crossroads to direct the convoy I was kissed by an onlooker.  I expect I looked very young as the ladies were middle-aged and motherly!

Lt ‘Boots‘ Crichton-Brown

‘…After dark we arrived at the village of Faumont near the Belgian frontier and only three miles from our earlier home of six weeks at Auchy.  We had all been impressed by the system of traffic control; there had been no hold-ups, all major crossroads being controlled by Military Police.  As we got ourselves settled into cottages and farms in the pitch darkness one of the subalterns fell into a farm midden. This was regarded, even by himself, as particularly amusing, for Bob Crichton-Brown (an Australian, now Sir Robert) was always immaculately turned out in pre-war service uniform which included grey breeches and highly polished riding boots. And so it was on the occasion when everyone else was attired in plain Battle-dress, “Boots”, as he was known, ordered his batman to burn tunic and breeches  and donned the more practical clothing.

Plan ‘D’- Advance to the Dyle Line

‘…Having seen the men fed and bedded down the officers finally got to bed after 2 a.m.  It was Saturday morning and the timetable for the advance to the Dyle in accord with Plan D, allowed us some rest as we were not scheduled to leave Faumont before 11 a.m. The day was spent in checking equipment and ammunition and games of football. Since leaving Herrissart we had seen enemy bombers and heard the crump of distant bombs.  Now these sounded nearer as attacks were made on Lille, some ten miles away.

At 10 a.m. I set off with a posse of motorcyclists to place them at crossroads along the route, lastly myself taking position at a lonely crossroads just short of the frontier.  I was glad of the night movement exercises we had had in April as these had made me familiar with the area.  It was eerie waiting by the deserted crossroads, a breeze rustling the tall poplars and the darkness relieved only by distant flashes; I extinguished the dim blue light on the m/c until at last the sound, later the sidelights of the regimental convoy led by my battery, appeared. A Dispatch Rider from RHQ, which was following 366 Battery, took over from me and I sped past our trucks to reach the frontier post first.  Here I found a pole across the road; I could have been any peacetime tourist!  A touch on my horn brought from a darkened house a Belgian customs official with a flashlight and seeing my uniform he raised the pole in time for the leading vehicle containing “Brooky” to cross the border.  It was exactly midnight 11/12th May.

By dawn on this Whit-Sunday we were well on the road to Brussels.  From the frontier the route had been clearly marked by blue lights so shaded as to be invisible from the air.  After daylight we saw numerous enemy aircraft.  In cottage gardens the man of the house was to be seen digging shelter trenches for his family. It was now discovered that our Battery Sgt-Major was missing; during the night his m/c had collided with that of another regiment, both riders being hospitalised and eventually shipped to England.

With daylight too appeared the first of the refugees; initially the better-off in cars with mattresses secured to the roof as dubious protection against aerial machine gun attack.  Later came pathetic families, their few salvaged possessions on barrows and perambulators, in many cases the more elderly riding atop.  We came to Brussels at 10.30; it was Whit-Sunday and the city was en-fete.  Huge crowds volubly welcomed us and as I directed traffic on a large square a floral wreath was placed over my neck.  Here and there Belgian AA gunners were to be seen but only armed with machine guns.  Finally on a broad boulevard near the Royal Palace we parked our trucks and guns under tall poplars and were guided to a nearby school where our cooks soon had food on the go.  In the same building Belgian reservists, mostly young and un-military looking, were reporting for duty.

Bois de Margies (Huldenberg)

After snatching some sleep I was awoken at 6 p.m. to join the advance party to select gun positions near the Dyle.  We sped out of Brussels onto country roads, passing marching British infantry, and near Waterloo were allocated a battery area.  In turn I was allocated for ‘C’ Troop position a small wood which contained a pleasant small country house, apparently deserted.  This was marked on the map “Bois de Margies” (Marijis Bosch).  While the Troop Commander went off to recce an observation post (O.P.) overlooking the Dyle, I marked out my four gun positions and assisted my G.P.O.A., carried out the necessary survey, tying, as it were, the guns to the map.  Meanwhile my signaller set up his radio-set and telephone, the latter to be soon connected to lines laid from the O.P. and Battery HQ.  The guns arrived around 2 a.m., two of them getting ditched in the darkness on the narrow track.  Luckily the ground was dry and using the winches on the front of the gun-tractors they were soon clear and in position.  By means of the illuminated gun-sights (dial-sights) we then surveyed them on to the map-grid using an artillery director, a kind of theodolite.  Meanwhile the Gunners, six per gun, were unloading and stacking ammunition, the tractors being sent back to the wagon-lines, a mile or so in rear.

366 Battery in Action 

‘..During daylight on Whit-Monday our position was attacked several times by low-flying fighter ‘planes. One of these was a British built Hawker Fury (an obsolescent biplane) with Belgian markings, obviously in German hands.  I was asleep stretched out on a folded blanket under the trees at the time and awoke to hear a voice saying “excuse me, sir, your blanket is on fire”.  An incendiary bullet had passed through it near my right hip.  A platoon of the Grenadier Guards, impeccably turned out, marched through the position on their way to the river line and the subaltern stopped for a brief chat.  The Germans had still not reached the Dyle, although Belgian troops in some disorder were showing up and British armoured cars east of the river had reported sighting a German advance guard. T his information was imparted by Brooky over the telephone who also said that we were about to register the zone i.e. firing on selected points east of the Dyle and registering the data so obtained on the artillery board (a blank sheet except for printed grid-lines which were compatible with those on a 1/25,000 map – about 36” square, mounted on a board. Gun positions and targets could be plotted on the board using the local map coordinates and ranges and bearings measured by means of a pivoted steel arm).  The firing was observed and corrected from the O.P., using one gun only, the “pivot” gun.  Met. Reports had already started to arrive over the telephone, originating from an army or RAF weather station and giving us the bearing and speed of wind at various altitudes. Using printed tables a correction for these factors could then be applied to the registered range and bearing.

The Wehrmacht finally arrived early in the evening, heralded as far as we were concerned by the sound of rifle fire and machine guns.  Guns to the right and left of us opened fire during the night, but although we “stood to” we received no orders.  At dawn we heard the infantry’s gas gong sounding; at this early stage it was expected that, international conventions notwithstanding, the Germans would use gas.  I ordered gas masks to be donned whereupon my signaller said “I cannot find my gas mask, sir”.  Being tired and hungry I fear my reply was neither sympathetic nor polite.  Subsequently there were a few more false alarms, occasioned by the enemy’s use of smoke shell; since then I have always respected the First World War soldiers who had to live and fight for hours or days wearing this restricting apparatus.

Finally at 15.30 hours a S.O.S. came over the ‘phone and we opened fire on one of the pre-registered targets, a crossroads.  We were told afterwards that a German cyclist battalion had reached this point in a concentrated mass and had paid for their recklessness. As Dennis Clarke, the O.P. Officer, put it “arms, legs and bits of bicycle were flying in all directions”.  During the rest of the day and night we fired over 500 rounds on various tasks, no great number by the standards of the later war years but it seemed quite few at the time.

I believe it was this day that the first army VC of the war was won by a subaltern of the Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry.  We fired desultorily the next day and night; there was already a need to conserve ammunition.  It was on one of these nights, during a lull in the firing, that something magical happened; after all had become quiet a Nightingale broke into song, filling our wood with its lovely melody.

Although we were about 3,000 yards from the river we could sometimes hear the blare of recorded military bands and sometimes a voice on a loudspeaker.  The Germans had brought their propaganda to the front line but it was soon silenced. A sausage-shaped observation balloon rose above the German lines, a tribute to their complete air superiority and a threat to us. I have never understood why in our wood we did not come under heavy artillery fire; we had dug slit trenches, no easy task in the dense wood, but they were not required, in spite of minor air attacks by machine gunning fighter aircraft.  Luckily for us the Luftwaffe’s bombers were concentrating on the lines of communication.

Withdrawal from the Dyle

‘…The C.O. was probably also thinking of possible retribution as on the morning of 16th May, having now occupied the position for four nights, I was ordered to join a recce group to find alternative gun positions a few miles away but covering the same area of front.  We took a few Gunners along to dig gun-platforms and while this was being done we came under shell fire just after a Fiesler Storch [aircraft] had flown over.  At 7.45 p.m. we raced back for a rendezvous with the guns, which had now withdrawn from Margies Wood, in order to lead them to the new site.  On arrival at the RV the Troop Commander told me that a general withdrawal had been ordered and so we joined a long column of vehicles and marching men making their way back to Brussels which we reached at midnight.

The city was without lighting but illuminated by numerous burning buildings; this time there were no welcoming crowds only the crowd of refugees moving out of the city on foot.  Those lucky enough to have cars and petrol had already left.  Two young women, apparently British, asked me for a lift (traffic by this time was at a walking pace), which I refused as strictly against orders, advising them to try a Field Ambulance, i.e. a non-combatant unit.

River Dendre

‘…The B.E.F. was now to dig in on the River Dendre, some 24 km west of Brussels. In the early hours we left the main road with its pathetic traffic of refugees and soon reached the village of Steenkerke, about 10 km east of the Dendre.  In the barns and meadows adjacent to a farm we soon had petrol cookers going for our first decent meal for 24 hours and our first proper wash for several days.  The farmer’s wife, a motherly soul, without a blush distributed numerous buckets of water among the naked troops performing their ablutions; they seemed much more embarrassed than she was.

After snatching an hours sleep the officers gathered in the good lady’s best room for orders; before these commenced a Sergeant arrived to say that he had arrested two nuns who had been reported by a civilian as having arrived in the area by parachute.  These were then escorted into the room by two Gunners and questioned in German by Brooky, then in French by Dennis Clarke.  As they professed not to understand either language the farmer’s wife one again came to the rescue, speaking Flemish to them and French to Dennis.  Naturally the nuns denied being Germans so a Dispatch Rider was sent to RHQ and finally two stalwart MPs arrived from Brigade to take them away.  Regrettably I can report nothing further about this incident.

After some sleep I went off at 8 p.m. with a recce group to choose a gun position to support 1 Guards Brigade in a rearguard position while the main B.E.F. withdrew to and prepared a new line on the Dendre.  The guns, arriving at midnight, were placed two in the front room of a farmhouse, after knocking down the front walls, and two under trees in the garden.  A family of three adults and several children had to be turned out of their house.  Without undue demur they disappeared down the road; there were no other buildings in sight but luckily for them it was a warm night.  In the event we left in the morning without firing a single round. Along the road we passed the family returning to their home.

Transport Officer

Across the Dendre we took up a position already chosen for us a mile or two west of the river, firing a few hundred rounds the following day.  In the evening of this day I was appointed Transport Officer in place of Harry Baird, a 35 year old New Zealander who exchanged into my job. It was explained to me that Harry could not hit it off with the Battery Captain under whose immediate orders he came and that when they nearly came to blows.  Brooky had solved the problem this way.  At the same time I was given as assurance that nothing I had done or left undone had given rise to this re-organisation.  I did not relish working under Stephen Muir, the Battery Captain, furthermore taking on a new job when I was just finding my feet on firm ground as G.P.O. did not strike me as ideal.  As events turned out, thanks to the splendid co-operation of my new right hand man, the BQMS, on the one hand and the helpfulness of Lt.(QM) Frank Bower MC on the other I found little difficulty in adjusting.

The new job required great mobility so I found myself again on a motorcycle.  The W.L.O. was responsible for finding parking for all the battery vehicles (about 50) when these were not on the road; cover from air and ground observation were essential and ease of access for trucks carrying ammunition and supplies almost equally so.  Finally, he was responsible for anti-aircraft & ground defence. While the battery was in action he had to keep a steady flow of supplies to the guns and keep the Lt. QM informed of requirements.  (In the final stages of the campaign, now approaching, we became an independent battery and my business included seeking out sources of ammunition, petrol and food).  At the same time an eye had to be kept on the soldiers at the wagon lines, who, under the BQMS, consisted of drivers with a few “tradesmen”, a name given in the army to skilled men such as vehicle mechanics and gun artificers.

The Escaut Line, Ere

‘…While Harry Baird and I were still exchanging information about our new jobs orders came through for a further withdrawal and the Battery moved westwards at dusk, crossing into France which we had left a mere nine days before.  Soon after dawn we had passed through the ravaged city of Tournai; blasted buildings, brickwork spewed across streets, cables drooping like endless snakes over the tramlines, wrecked vehicles and dead horses, while over all hovered a ghastly stench.

After a few hours at Wannehain, east of Lille, the guns moved back into Belgium to Ere, (the B.E.F. was holding the line of the Scheldt).  I reported to the Lt.(QM) at Auchy to set up wagon lines.  Old ground for me, having spent five weeks there in March and April; just outside the village Frank had already selected a farm where I soon had the vehicles marshalled in orchards or under barns with accommodation for the men in the farm buildings.  I reported back to the gun position, about ten miles east, to find it under shellfire which Brooky opined from WW1 experience to be from “five nines”.  True or not, they caused our first casualties, one NCO being killed and several wounded; two of B Troop’s four guns were put out of action permanently.  Later while several hungry officers, including myself, were about to partake of an appetising stew in a farmhouse cellar a shell bursting outside brought down the ceiling, rendering our meal uneatable, since it now contained plaster and splintered glass.

Back at the wagon lines I found Frank had fixed up a small mess at the back of the “Docks du Nord”, the village grocery.  There was only Frank and myself, plus the attached French Liaison officer, an urbane Parisian whose English was liberally sprinkled with Americanisms.  For meals we shared a table with the shop’s elderly manageress and her pretty daughter-in-law, whose husband was in the Maginot Line.  The women did the cooking while Frank supplied the rations, civil food supplies having of course dried up apart from a few tinned goods which the shop was supplying to the few remaining civilians.  We had comfortable sleeping quarters in a house abandoned by its occupants with all the contents intact, even to the sheets on the beds.  I had a few hours sleep in one, fully clothed, before returning after midnight to the gun position with the Parisian on my pillion.  I was given details of ammunition and other requirements and by daylight I was on my way back to Auchy.  At the border post I saw a number of refugees crossing into France, among them an elderly couple with a seven year old girl, perhaps a grandchild.  Their wooden cart containing their pathetic possessions had broken a wheel so I took the child on the pillion to Auchy, telling the couple to fetch her from the “Docks du Nord”, where on arrival the two women provided breakfast and took charge of the child.

While the ammunition was being loaded my attention was taken by a bus stopped outside the farm gate.  Its bodywork resembled a sieve and the windows were shattered.  The Belgian driver indicated I should look inside; the seats and floor were drenched in blood and covered with glass splinters.  Apparently it had been full of children few of whom survived.

It was now the turn of Auchy to be attacked by low-flying bombers and a few more houses were reduced to rubble. A Bofors section in action nearby engaged the dive-bombers and they flew off.

The Belgian authorities had released the inmates of a large mental institution near Tournai and these unfortunates were wandering about the countryside.  A small number were in Auchy during the bombing attack and I was approached by a Pioneer Corps Corporal asking me to intervene with his Sergt-Major, who was threatening to shoot one.  The elderly, highly decorated warrant officer, whose medals included the DCM, himself appeared deranged but was amenable to an order to cease his harassment.  He seemed to think the hapless idiot was a spy.

Sainghin-en-Melantois, 22nd May 1940

‘..The morning of 22nd May, cloudless as most in that 1940 spring, seemed ideal for the Luftwaffe’s operations.  That morning I was ordered to reconnoitre new wagon-lines a few miles westward at Sainghin-en-Melantois.  Grateful that I knew the district, formerly part of our training area, that afternoon I guided the vehicles into the selected woodland.  It was good, too, that we had located a dump of 18-pdr ammunition in the vicinity.  At midnight I took the gun-tractors into Belgium and the battery was pulled out, troop by troop, my old C Troop firing to the last moment, the last out, followed by Brooky and myself.  Before dawn the guns were emplaced, back in France again after their brief incursion into Belgium.  The new position was close to the wagon-lines and these were promptly moved further back, to Vendeville, a small industrial town.  An unhappy situation as the town was still occupied by civilians, but we took over a contractor’s yard and adjoining streets.  As the camouflage nets were spread out we cast uneasy glances at the sky.

367 Battery departs Sainghin-en-Melantois, 23rd May 1940

‘…I had next to find the Q.M. of 27th Field Regt to arrange rations.  The reason; RHQ 140 Regiment, plus 367 Battery were moving to the Foret de Nieppe, leaving 366 Battery under command 27th Field Regt.  Unknown to us at the time preparations were in hand to protect the Dunkirk perimeter for an evacuation.

There was now a serious shortage of rations; it was not the best of times to be forced to rely on another regiment.  As for ammunition, their 25-pdr shells would not fit our old 18-pdrs.  For the food supplies, I was given a stack of Franc notes and told to buy up what was available.  The BGMS scoured the town and loaded a truck with crates of butter, tins of fish and bags of flour.  At a cigarette warehouse we were told to help ourselves gratis to as many fags as we could take.

When at the Sainghin gun position attending one of Brooky’s briefings something droned past my ear, the sound like a Bumble Bee.  Driver Thomas let out a yell and clutched his arm; blood soaked through his battledress.  Seconds later another man fell to the ground, my first experience of small arms fire.  It came from Flemish partisans sympathetic to Nazism; the so-called Fifth Column.

So ill-prepared was Britain that many artillery units at that stage had one rifle and ten rounds .303 for each five men and not all officers had revolvers.  With what we had, however, an armed party was organised and the attackers disappeared.  I departed for Vendeville reflecting that, were I a partisan, a lone motorcyclist might seem a good target.

The next day, while approaching Vendeville after a visit to 27th Field Regiment, I saw and heard the crump of bombs on the town.  Seconds later a twin-engined aircraft with French markings came into sight on a wavering course and fell on the town.  Then arose the shrill cries of many angry women converging on the wreck from all directions.  In spite of the French roundels the airplane had been flown by the Luftwaffe.  If the crew had survived the crash their chances looked slim.  At the time it did not occur to me to intervene on their behalf.  Later in the day I idly investigated the crashed aircraft, hanging between two partially demolished houses.  A dead aviator was visible, slumped forward in the cockpit.

My pocket diary for Saturday 25th May says “remain at Vendeville until evening” but does not say what I did.  Perhaps called NCOs and drivers together to keep them informed of what was going on, conferred with the BQMS over rations and ammunition and even had a rest.  The diary continues “had crash on motorcycle after dark on way to gun position.  Hit stationary lorry, not much damage”.  The vehicle was unlit and parked in the road centre, the motorcycle light was, for obvious reasons, a mere glimmer.  Damage was to the brake pedal and I completed the campaign without a rear brake, as well as minus a finger nail. When I picked myself up the R.A.S.C. driver got an ill-tempered dressing down.

At the gun position there was a fire plan in progress; more ammunition was required so I returned to Vendeville and took up a truck load finally getting off the position before daylight on the Sunday.  On this day it was said that the Germans were in Carvin, some miles westward and thus at our rear.  The guns were withdrawn from Bouvines and emplaced for action near the existing wagon lines at Vendeville.  O.P.s were selected and miles of cable laid, this activity being enlivened by a violent thunderstorm; a bonus is that the Luftwaffe was temporarily grounded.

Wagon line at Vendeville

‘…One incident of the Vendeville days stands out in my mind.  Brooky had given me a map reference of an ordnance dump and sent me with a small truck to get buffer oil for the guns, our stock having been exhausted.  Not normally a job for an officer but it was known that there was no buffer oil now available in France so something would have to be improvised.

I found the ordnance unit in the grounds of a small country house, scarcely large enough to be dignified by the name of Chateau as shown on the map.  A sentry halted me at the gate; his rifle leaned up against a nearby tree. The conversation went as follows :-

Me: “What kind of a soldier are you with your rifle out of reach over there?”

Sentry:  (pointing) “Look at my mate over there, sir”

When I looked I saw a man lying on the ground squinting down the barrel of a light machine gun pointed at my chest. Me: “oh, well alright….”.

I found the O.C. of the dump, a Major who looked like a “dugout” Indian Cavalry officer.  He was accompanied by an elderly and aristocratic looking Frenchman, presumably the owner of the chateau and almost certainly by his appearance himself a retired officer.  Both were busy cleaning and loading rifles, including an anti-tank rifle then in vogue, the Boyes.  This is not an activity I would normally associate with senior officers, serving or retired.  Soldiers were busy loading trucks, obviously preparing for a move.  I have often wondered if the gallant Major was sending off his personnel while he and the elderly civilian proposed to take on the enemy.

Meanwhile I asked the Major if he had any buffer oil or substitute.

Moustachioed Major:  “Only got French motor oil, young man. Pinched it from a garage.”

Me:   “Will that be any use as buffer oil?” MM:  “How the hell should I know? You’re the bloody Gunner!” I took the oil and thankfully it worked.

Lomme

‘…Meanwhile the infantry had chased the Germans out of Carvin so no shots were fired by the battery.  Instead Brooks was ordered to report to the infantry Brigadier Sutton but could not be found; he was recce’ing O.P.s and his wireless set, as so often in those early days of the war, off the air.  So I was sent.  A cheerful Brigadier gave me a cup of tea and a tin of cigarettes.  How much sooner would I have appreciated a hunk of bread and bully-beef for we were now down to quarter rations.  He also gave me written orders; his brigade was retiring to the neighbourhood of Lille and as the attached battery we were to move to Lomme to await orders.

Lomme at the time was a pleasant modern garden suburb some mile southwest of Lille. The presence of massive railway yards nearby had attracted the bombs and as we traversed the outer suburbs of Lille wrecked buildings and festooned tramway wires hindered movement.  We finally laagered the battery in a middle-class housing estate, apparently deserted by its usual occupants.  The officers reported to the Battery Captain at a schoolmaster’s house, where a little food and wine were discovered and gratefully consumed in a dining room amply provided with silver and clean linen napkins.  One wall was lined with books.  A haven of peace, if very temporary, for soon we got orders to move to Houplines. Meanwhile bombing had started again but this did not stop us adding a few abandoned civilian cars to our roster of vehicles.  Brooks instructed the Sgt. Artificer to remain behind with two assistants to repair the least damaged of the three guns.  This decision had unfortunate repercussions as related below.

On arrival at Houplines the battery (now only nine guns) was detached from Sutton’s Brigade (part of 42nd Division) and attached to 5th Division with an immediate move to Ploegsteert (“Plugstreet”).  Ask any student of 1914-18 and you will find the names Ploegsteert, Neuve Eglise, Wytschaete and Messines are part of the weave of history.  We were shortly to make their acquaintance. Meanwhile the Major ordered me to return to Lomme to bring the “Tiffy” and his mates as well as the guns to the new destination.

A mile or two before entering the built up area of Lomme the road crossed a river by a narrow cantilever bridge, which we had already crossed on the way out.  This time a detachment of French engineers was preparing it for demolition. I informed a bearded Lieutenant, who spoke good English, of my errand and he gave me 45 minutes.  A few minutes later I was at the place where the crew had been working but there was no sign of men or guns.  I rode round the area but could find no one.  After filling my water bottle in an empty house I reported to the French troops at the bridge before going back to the battery.

Two years later in England I received a letter from the War Office asking me to describe when and where I had last seen Tiffy as he was still missing.  No mention was made of his assistants, presumably accounted for as POWs.

Messines

‘…I hurried over empty pave roads to Ploegsteert where a Don R was waiting to take me to the battery position.  Neuve Eglise was shambles of dead bodies, human and equine, a French horse-drawn battery having been caught by the Luftwaffe.  The rubble from demolished houses filled the village  street.  Pressing on to Wytschaete, I found the guns just outside the village firing towards Messines Ridge.  Here they were in action for more than 24 hours, losing one man missing, later reported as a POW.  As a signaller he had been laying cable to an O.P. and must have been picked up by a German patrol.  Without delay I led the transport to Dranoutre, there to improvise wagon-lines.  The terrain being flat and treeless all vehicles were dispersed over fields or along roadsides and covered with camouflage nets.  Luckily the bombers were concentrating on Dunkirk where the evacuation was already underway.  There were numerous WW1 cemeteries all over this area.

Withdrawal to Dunkirk

‘…The following morning a Don R (Bdr Thomas) came from the battery with orders to report to Brooky.  He further announced that the battery would be returning to England; astonishing news as none of us had realised the seriousness of the situation.  On arrival at the gun position Brooks confirmed the story and instructed me to return to Dranoutre and make all but a stated number of vehicles unusable but not to burn them.  After destruction of the guns the troops would move to Dunkirk for embarkation.

On my return the drivers set to work with pickaxes and crowbars, both normal vehicle equipment , to do as much damage as possible.  Tyres were slashed and engines, after draining water and oil, run to destruction.  Other stores, if combustible, were stacked and burned.  This was no mean task as the battery had some 50 vehicles.

With the remaining trucks we returned late afternoon to Wytschaete.  The guns were still firing.  Someone gave me some hot chicken to gnaw; it was floating in a Dixie of greasy green-coloured fluid, none too appetising to the sight but a boon to the empty stomach.  In a cottage, temporarily Battery H.Q., Brooky’s short, tubby, monocle figure was writing rude remarks in German on the whitewashed walls.  His literary activity over for the moment he hustled me off to accompany him to the gun-line, where all the spare gunners were busy destroying stores not required.  We watched C and A Troops destroy their guns by the simple expedient of placing a shell in the muzzle before firing.  After placing a second shell in the breech and the gunners having retired to a safe distance a line tied to the firing lever was pulled, the resulting burst leaving the barrel splayed out like an Iris. The gun sights had already been removed to be carried away for future use.

In front of the guns the ground rose gently to the Messines Ridge about half a mile away. Infantry could be seen moving about near the crest and small parties of them retiring in good order towards the guns. The battery had three observation posts (O.P.s) along this ridge, two static and one in a Bren Carrier. Well over 3,000 rounds were fired this day.

We went down to watch B Troop firing their last rounds. One of their Sergeants chose this moment to tell me he had met a friend on my mother’s in Southampton before embarking in March. S he was a volunteer at the Toc H Club and seemingly had asked the man if he knew anyone of my name.

Between 8 and 9 p.m., it still being daylight, HQ, A and C Troops moved off under the Battery Captain Stephen Muir, with whom I travelled in his 8 cwt. Truck. Brooks remained behind with B Troop, still firing.  At Dranoutre (or possibly Loker) we joined a main road to find it jammed with British, French and Belgian military transport, some of it horse-drawn.  Milling in and out of the stationary or near stationary vehicles were mounted cavalrymen, French and Senegalese, the latter quite picturesque.  Our column must somehow filter from the side of the road into this uninviting mix and inevitably we soon got split up into small groups.

Before long darkness drew a veil over this scene. So far the retreat of the B.E.F. from the Dyle had seemed orderly.  Now it was degenerating, although the general attitude of the soldiers remained one of calm acceptance.  The rate of progress was rather less than walking pace, with numerous halts.  Around midnight we stopped rather longer than usual and I walked forward to investigate; a column of about twelve French “half-tracks” was halted in the middle of the road with every occupant fast asleep.  Waking none too gently a slumberer in the leading half-track I hurried back and we then proceeded at a good rate until we caught up with the tail of the original column.

Poperinghe

‘…Soon after daylight we reached Poperinghe.  Bombing had destroyed much of the small town and debris round an enormous crater blocked the exit road.  Military Police had already marked out an alternative route across fields and along farm tracks.  Luckily the hot weather had baked the ground.  Luckily too the Junkers 88s were busily occupied over Dunkirk although there was some high level bombing and an occasional Messerschmitt sprayed the column with its machine guns, causing casualties amongst the foot-sloggers and vehicles.  The cavalry scattered across the fields for safety.  At this juncture a Senegalese was said to have been seen with the severed head of a German airman tied to his saddle.

The corridor into Dunkirk was now narrowing. In the low-lying fields beside the pave, field and ant-tank guns were dug in and in some cases firing.  All were British.  Less encouragingly there were numerous abandoned French tanks, apparently undamaged, as well as other vehicles and dead bodies, I was now driving; Captain Muir beside me was getting more and more despondent.

We came to a trio of burning trucks blocking the road, which had a dyke on either side.  No chance of passing.  Ammunition within the trucks was popping off like fire-crackers.  We disembarked the men from our three trucks which we drove into the dykes, then marched off in single file.  Soon we came to more burning trucks and exploding ammunition.  Standing nearby were two elderly officers.  Just as our party was passing them some of the burning ammunition gave an extra loud bang.

We were still some ten miles from Dunkirk when we came upon ‘Boots’ [Crichton-Brown] and some of his men investigating an abandoned three-tonner. It still contained petrol so we all piled in and drove away, the three officers in the cab, Boots driving.  We picked up as many foot-sloggers as we could hold then made rapid progress until held up by some French poilus pointing pistols at us. One of these kept shouting “blesse” and demanding to ride with us.  We asked to see the wounded men but they were unable to produce any so, indicating that the bus was full we made to drive on.  The same man now fired his pistol twice into a front tyre, although with no apparent effect.  A French officer emerged from the roadside, presumably awakened by the pistol shot, remonstrated with his men and apologised profusely.

Dunkirk

‘…Since early morning we had been aware of the pall of black smoke over the city, mainly from the burning oil storage tanks near the docks.  As we approached the outer city an air raid was in progress; a tall building slid slowly and gracefully across our road.  We disembarked and decided to split up into small parties and make for the beach or docks.  I suppose we expected to find ships lined up ready to take us aboard, “anymore for the Skylark!”.  ‘Boots’ drove the 3-Tonner back whence we had come to pick up more foot-sloggers.  I soon wished I had thought of this idea first as for the next seven hours we were to be subjected to low-level bombing attacks at roughly 20 minute intervals.

I picked a way, accompanied by some six or eight men, through the debris and tram wires filling the streets.  As we passed a park more “Stukas” came screaming down and seeing the word “Abri” we entered a large shelter, already crowded with French Marines.  After this we made our way, though not without another air attack, to the beach at Malo-les-Bains.  Facing a calm green sea, to the left we could see the burning oil tanks and the mole with its numerous tall cranes, some of them toppling drunkenly.  Centre stage were two sunken ships, masts and funnels above water; further out a burning Destroyer.  To the right was a broad sandy beach on which thousands of men were standing or moving, some already formed up in snake-like columns extending from the sea edge to the hotels and other buildings at the top of the beach.  Of rescuing ships there was no sign.  Overhead an aerial “dogfight” was in progress and a British ‘plane spiralled down into the sea.  Ambulances were drawn up in a square with doctors working on the wounded nearby.  Occasionally an ambulance broke away and trundled slowly along the beach.  The dead were being laid out in neat rows.

As we neared the Casino, a prominent white building, more dive-bombers came in and all the snake-like queues seemed to turn over as every man flung himself down.  We did likewise and soon regretted it as the beach at this point was covered in human excrement.  One of the more abiding memories of this day is the prevailing odour, a mixture of blood, T.N.T. and excrement.

The Casino, Dunkirk 1940

Although at the time it did not seem surprising, it was amazing how soon we found the larger part of 366 battery.  It comprised the rear end of one of the snakes, Major Brooks amongst them.  The latter’s aplomb and outstanding energy seemed to have left him at last, even the monocle gone from his eye.  I asked him what he thought the immediate future held.  His reply was not reassuring, “I expect, in the morning, the senior officer will go with a white flag to the Germans”.  He and I slept for a few hours after dark, back to back for warmth on the sand.  By daylight at 4 a.m. he was his usual dynamic and monocled self. Later in the day he pulled his revolver on a Major who, with a small party, was trying to jump the queue.

During the night a Naval Lieutenant and two seamen appeared on the beach and at daylight we saw a Destroyer and some smaller craft lying about a mile offshore.  At least one other Destroyer was also alongside the Mole.  Miraculously no Stukas appeared.  Ships and lifeboats came to the beach and picked up soldiers from the front of the queues, which by now reached well into the sea, the water up to men’s waists.  The slightly shelving beach did not allow the boats in closer.  The Stukas returned later in the day but much less frequently and determinedly than the previous day; on the other hand large calibre guns started a slow harassing fire on to the beach.  A few foolhardy spirits stripped off their clothes and attempted to swim to the waiting ships.  Bodies floating in on the tide showed that their impatience may have cost some their lives.

At last by about 5 p.m. most of the battery had embarked and the officers and a few Sergeants scrambled into two small lifeboats and were rowed out to a Dutch “Skoot” now flying the White Ensign.  The hold and every square inch of the deck was covered with khaki.  It seemed that the only officers aboard were those of 366 battery including Brooky so we were invited by the skipper, a RNR Lieutenant, into the tiny wardroom, where tea and hard biscuits were more than welcome as we had had nothing except a few biscuits for 48 hours.

Dutch Skoot, showing shallow draught

The ship was soon under way when Stukas came over damaging a nearby Destroyer whose guns made a colossal racket as tried to drive off the attackers.  From then on I remember nothing of the voyage, being fast asleep on the Wardroom deck.

Ramsgate

‘…At 9.30 p.m. unshaven, unwashed and odiferous we sorted out the 366 battery men from the rest and marched along the quay at Ramsgate to a gate.  Here to our amazement stood a throng of mostly middle-aged women bearing trays of tea and sandwiches while small crowd raised a cheer. Bearing our sustenance we were then escorted by military police to a waiting train. Sinking back on the soft cushions we devoured our sandwiches, then Boots produced a razor from his pocket and, one by one, we all had a dry shave.

Return to Gloucestershire

‘…As the train made its way across Kent through the dusk every wayside station had its quota of welcoming by-standers.  When it stopped at a larger station ladies with trays of provender again appeared.  The train crossed London and in the morning we de-trained at Tetbury in Gloucestershire.  The O.R.s were taken away in trucks to be looked after by the 143rd Field Regt R.A. while the officers were driven to the “Hare & Hounds” taken over for the purpose by the same regiment.  In no time I was telephoning my mother who immediately sent a wire to Jill. Next a bath, breakfast and a sleep in that order.

Royal Visit 

‘…The following morning Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, who lived nearby, visited the camp and shook hands all round.  I was wearing the same khaki often slept in during the previous weeks but at least I had had a haircut! A tall and gracious lady shook my hand while I intoned my rank and name.

Reunited

‘..It was a Saturday morning and after lunch an officer of the 143rd Regiment drove Peter Booth and myself to Bath from where I got a train for Bristol and was soon walking up the short drive at Brislington for a joyful reunion with my loved one.  After all too few hours I returned to Bath from where the good Samaritan drove Peter and me back to camp.

Two days later we entrained for Okehampton, Devon and after three days under canvas at the Artillery practice camp we moved 8 miles to Hatherleigh where we were under canvas initially, later moving into billets’.