Invasion alerts

“At the end of February 1940, the regiment moved to St Alban’s and into more comfortable billets though we still had floorboards as beds. We stayed in a large detached house towards the outskirts of the city and on the road to London Colney, near St Mimms. I nicknamed our new platoon leader Sergeant Brown as ‘Tapper’ because he would quite unashamedly tap us for a loan half way through the week. We were a battalion in the same brigade as two Royal Fusilier territorial battalions and part of the 47th London Division. Training consisted of lots of route marching. On these, we were encouraged to sing as we marched along the country roads. Corporal Belding, a very large NCO with red hair, led the singing of often ribald parodies of popular songs, much to my disgust and that of any passing pedestrian. A favourite was McNamara’s band, which was directed at the commander of 15 Platoon Captain Hennessy. He used to join in with gusto and secretly enjoyed his nickname ‘Tootle Hennessy’ from the verse: ‘Hennessy, Hennessy. Tootle your flute’.”

We were then packed off to Purfleet marshes to fire our rifles at targets and have our weapons zeroed-in. Over about three days, we trudged daily to the windswept, open marshes to fire, if we were lucky, about a clip of five rounds. I developed a raging toothache. We were allowed out in the evening, so I went to the nearest dentist to have it removed. He protested violently as I possessed a full set. I demanded removal because the suffering was unbearable. Reluctantly, he removed the offending item. I continued to suffer for a week with neuralgia.

St. Alban’s was a very pleasant city and we enjoyed our stay. One evening, Sergeant Tapper Brown came to our room where Bas Creasy, Pip Ward and I were buffing up our boots.

‘Good,’ said the sergeant. ‘The right number and the right chaps. Get your kits together in 30 minutes, as a truck will be collecting you.’

‘Why Sarge,’ we chorused.

‘You have volunteered for the RPs.’

‘What’s RPs?,’ we asked.

‘The regimental police,’ he replied.

We were above normal intelligence but sub-standard physically. Bas was decidedly corpulent and, despite army food, had managed to put on weight. He could be described as lethargic. Less polite persons would consider him to be bone idle or even bloody lazy. Pip, on the other hand, was a vital person, but not a policeman. I was keen but, in my overlarge battle dress, was the antithesis of a smart policeman. We reported to the provost sergeant who was responsible for the regimental police. Sergeant Floyd was a kindly, very smart man in his late thirties. He obviously was not too impressed by his latest volunteers. He issued us with green armbands upon which were the letters RP. Our station was the battalion quartermaster’s stores.

Next morning, immediately after breakfast, Sergeant Floyd inspected us and detailed our duties. I was paired with a very tall, smart, lance-corporal and our task was to patrol the main roads in the centre of the city. We strolled in a policeman-like manner, calling into various establishments like Battalion HQ. At one point, our attention was drawn to the pipe band which was leading HQ Company on a route march. I was thrilled and stood with my hands behind my back, admiring the military phalanx as it passed. Suddenly, there was a roar: ‘That RP there. Stand to attention as we pass!’ I sheepishly drew my feet together.

A sergeant came dashing out, shouting: ‘You are under close arrest for failing to stand to attention when an armed party passes. Fall in at the rear of the company!’ I was compelled to march behind the company until we reached their first 50-minute halt. Captain John Lofting sent for me and asked for an explanation. I told him that as I was so impressed by the music and the solemnity of the occasion that I had forgotten to bring my feet together. I added that I intended no insult to his company. ‘You can rejoin your comrade. I think you have learnt your lesson. Fall out!’ I saluted and started marching the two and a half miles back to St Albans.

As a probationary RP, I had few privileges, no stripes and only the authority of the armband as protection. RPs were always on duty patrolling the city until midnight. A bonus, however, was to be able to have a 30-minute break in the canteen run by the good ladies of the city. Here we were regaled with a mighty fry-up of egg and bacon, the like of which I have never tasted since. The charge was about sixpence (2.5p). Each night, we mounted a picket over the stores and patrolled alone for two hour stints. I remember watching, with infinite pleasure, dawn breaking and hearing in the crystal late-April air the preliminary warblings of the birds. This gradually developed into a completely deafening chorus of such beauty that it assailed every sense with its splendour. During my short military career up to that point, I had been on many guard duties at dawn, but such experiences had never before been manifest.

After the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, we were immediately put on alert and moved by a curious variety of vehicles to Sandy in Bedfordshire. Our convoy included superannuated buses and pantechnicons. We disembussed in a wooded glade where I immediately proceeded to relieve myself behind a tree. I was interrupted by a roar: ‘Put that man under arrest!’ It was the medical officer accompanied by the provost sergeant. Brought before the company commander, I was admonished and returned to duty. Practically the whole regiment had emulated me, but I had broken the 11th commandment: never get caught. The sergeant, with relief, returned his temporary RPs to their company. Was it a record? I had been placed under close arrest on my first and last days as an upholder of regimental law.

Nothing happened for a couple of days except our rifles were exchanged. Evidently, they were meant to be for drill purposes only. We were issued with P14 and Ross rifles, which came from stocks held in Canada since the First World War. They were so thick around the point of balance that my small hands had difficulty grasping one. Rumour was lurid and rife. But there was one common thread. The British Army in France and Belgium was having a hard time. We were moved to the coast to join our division and to guard the English coastline at Lowestoft in Suffolk. We debussed at a deserted flat area and erected bell tents. Towards evening, we were marched in full battle array to the beach where we were fenced in by coils of wire. Captain Gibbs told us that we had to dig slit trenches. We were reassured that, if an invasion occurred from the sea, we only had to hold on for 10 minutes or so because six-inch naval guns were ranged upon our position. ‘What about us?,’ asked an NCO. ‘Oh! Just take cover in your slit trenches,’ was the reply.

We had been supplied with empty bottles, pieces of rag and large cans of petrol and were let into the secret of how to manufacture Molotov cocktails, an anti-tank weapon used by the Republicans in the Spanish civil war. No one reminded our trainer that the Republicans lost.

Standing-to all night in full battle order was followed at full daylight by building work. There was a small, antiquated concrete mixing machine close by. This was started up and we used sand and gravel mixed with bags of Portland cement to make our first dragon’s tooth anti-tank barriers. We were then marched back to camp for breakfast. But instead of a rest after the labours of the night and morning, we were trained. This included our itinerary of drill, marching and weapon training. That evening, we were not marched to the beach but dressed in full battle order and rested in our tents. We lay on our haversacks with mess tins pressing into our backs and our respirators on our chests restricting our breathing. At dusk and dawn, we on our feet and looking for the invaders.

At dusk, I was posted in the thickening gloom on guard away from my fellows. I heard what I thought was the word: ‘Gas!’. My greatest fear had come to pass: a gas attack. Following well-taught rules, I held my breath and covered my face with the mask. Standing there with bayonet fixed, I was confronted by a massive figure, obviously proof against gas, as he was not wearing a gas mask.

‘Halt!,’ I commanded in a much muffled voice. ‘Who goes there?’

A clear voice said: ‘Take that bloody thing off so I can hear you.’ It was Captain Gibbs. He asked me why I had put on my respirator. I told him that I thought I heard that terrifying word. Once again, I was not condemned but applauded for being alert.

A few days later, there was an invasion; not by bloodthirsty Germans but gangs of navvies with a massive machine which they proceeded to erect on a kind of stage. Wooden buildings appeared with notices on them. One read Advances. We, grossly underpaid and overworked on a maximum of two bob a day, were to see men who had not yet done a stroke of work lining up for fists full of money.

It would be some days before a block-house and more dragon’s teeth would enrich the landscape of that seaside resort. We were receiving more authentic news which was backed up by the appearance of small craft with men in blue navy uniforms and peaked caps. They were some of those who had played such a crucial part in the evacuation of more than 300,000 British Expeditionary Force and other Allied troops from Dunkirk over 10 days ending 4 June 1940. We also heard how the Queen Victoria’s Rifles (QVR) had been liquidated at Calais. Originally, our battalion had been selected to go to Calais with the other two rifle regiments in the 47th Division, but the QVR had claimed the honour. They had paid a terrible price.”