Let’s start at Marlborough in 1940. You need to understand the Marlborough College OTC. The College was organised into 2 bits – junior houses and senior houses. The senior colleges were either in college or out college. In college was on the campus and out college were in big houses on the Bath Road. In college, you had B1, B2 and B3; C1, C2 and C3 and out college were Freshwood, Cotton and Littlefield. As far as the OTC was concerned, junior houses did no OTC work at all. When they moved to their senior house, they spent their first year in D Company as a whole, which was the recruitment Company. After the first year, they went on to their House platoon for further training, leading to Cert A (??) examination. House platoons seemed to have a strength of 20 plus, or so. You didn’t have to join the OTC but practically everybody did in those days.
Did you do it one day a week on Wednesday afternoons or something?
Wednesday afternoons; that’s right.
When do you go to out college?
At the end of your first year. One year in junior house and the rest of your time in a senior house. In college and out college was entirely, in those days, about what your parents wished to pay. If you were out college, you got a study sooner and were looked after in a house and were fed in a house and so on. I was in a house, which was a junior house and then in B3.
So from 14 to 18 you were either in college or out college depending on how much your parents paid?
Depending on whether you were in a junior house out college. If you were in Friary, Barton Hill or Upcote, you could go to Cotton, Freshwood and Littlefield. It’s complicated which is why I’ve written it down. I came to the school in 1936. The Secretary of State for War announced the formation of the LDV on the 14th May. Shortly afterwards, the Master announced that boys who were aged 17 or older in the OTC could, if they had written permission from parents, join the LDV units which the OTC was forming. This was to be based on the house platoon, and like the LDV everywhere else, would be available for local operational duties; manning road blocks, static guards and so on. At this point I ought to say that the OTC LDV, while it may at some stratospheric level have had a connection with Marlborough town LDV, we didn’t know about it. We had our little bit.
You were an entirely separate entity?
Well no – at the top was the man who ran the corps, a chap called Lt. Col.Bill Harling who obviously had connections with the Marlborough LDV, which was probably run by a doctor or a business man or whatever. I was in B3 house platoon which in LDV had a strength of 14…….
So sorry, but just to get this absolutely straight, was Marlborough College part of the local LDV…….were you part of the Marlborough LDV?
It must have been, but I never saw anyone else.
Right, so from an operational point of view, you were just operating in your own…..
There must have been some chap. We just did our…….don’t forget, this is a worm’s eye view!
B3 had a strength of 14 …….that’s a picture of a house platoon at full strength I think in 1938, coming back from a field day against Winchester.
So there were just 14 of you in the platoon?
14 and we were never split up.
And you were all in the LDV?
No; only those who were 17 and over. The house platoon was probably 20 plus, including people of 15 and 16.
So there were 14 of you who were at least 17?
Yes, and whose parents had given permission, and who volunteered. The thing to remember…..you probably understand this but I have to say this. At this time, both the civil and military authorities were quite sure there would be an invasion. There was a threat both from internal 5th columnists and from ?? parachutists, both of which had caused havoc in Belgium. They virtually turned the whole of England, Scotland and Wales into an armed camp.
You can remember that clearly can you? That feeling of…….
I can remember hearing on an illegal radio on the morning of the 10th May that they’d invaded Belgium. I thought ‘Christ, now what’s going to happen? Things are getting worse and worse.’ The LDV had formed before everybody had got out of Dunkirk on 14th May.
So as schoolboys, you were following events pretty closely were you? Listening to illegal radios.
Oh yes! Nobody was allowed to have a radio. Bryce-Ramsden had one. He had a study well away from authority.
Did you have access to newspapers at school?
So you were reading about what was going on?
And was there a sense of ‘Oh my God; what’s going on?’
A sense of excitement to start with; a sense of depression…..when it came to Dunkirk we thought ‘Christ! Have we lost?’ You looked at the map and what was so absolutely astounding was that when it was discovered they’d taken 300,000 people off the beaches at Dunkirk we thought ‘That’s marvellous! Well done us!’ And then we thought ‘But we left all our kit behind.’ There was a feeling in June/July that summer that you might have 5th columnists; you might have all sorts of things. As a result of this, we manned road blocks. There was one to the west of the College on the Bath Road; the A4. There was one platoon in the armoury where I suppose about 500 rifles were stored which weren’t being used by us, because I suppose the Corps at full strength was about 800. That platoon had an officer and he had a telephone – he was a house master. Road blocks were on the Bath Road – that was the one we manned most frequently.
What form did that road block take?
A large piece of agricultural machinery half of which was dragged across half of the road. The other half could be opened. That’s how I remember it. The next one was at the bottom of Granham Hill which, if you went to the end of George Lane and turned left, on the corner going up the hill was another – going towards Pewsey. There was also one I believe on the Swindon Road, somewhere near Marlborough Common. I reckon that the Marlborough town LDV must have manned the A4 and the Salisbury Road. If they needed to be manned at all. A word about dress. We had OTC tunic and trousers; side caps; belt; bayonet; rifle; haversack, with a ratio with any luck and army boots. We didn’t have gaiters; that was too modern.
No puttees; no gaiters!
No gaiters hadn’t been invented as far as we were concerned. I have no memory about ammunition at all. It seems inconceivable that we couldn’t have had any.
You had your .303’s didn’t you?
You must have had a few rounds I suppose.
Ammunition and firearms were much more widely spread. Everyone had a shotgun around here and you only had to have a 10 shilling licence from the post office for that; dead easy. Our task on the Bath Road block was to halt all incoming vehicles. With lorries, we had to check the driver’s identity papers and check his work ticket; see where he was going and where he’d come from. Private cars we had to check the occupants identity papers and ask them where they had come from and where they were going and why they were doing it. At one stage, we provided an OP – an operation post party – of 2 men on the Downs. If you go along the Bath Road, there is a turning over a bridge to Clatford. Almost opposite Clatford there is a footpath that goes straight up onto the hills to the south and when you get up there, you can see for miles. That was for the parachutists. I can’t remember how it worked but I did it once. In retrospect, I suppose our aim was to inhibit 5th column activity and thereby perhaps give confidence to the local population that something was being done about 5th columnists. Everyone was expecting Nuns to come down with Tommy guns! In general, to support the impression that the whole country was an armed camp, which it was.
These road blocks, did you man them at night?
Only at night. I have an impression, and it may be quite wrong, that one platoon by day was a sort of alarm platoon and they were in their kit and carried their rifles with them to lessons, which seems quite incredible. But I have the feeling it did happen.
But your platoon was only at night?
Oh yes; none of the platoons did anything except at night.
And would you stay up all night doing this?
Presumably to start off with it was all quite exciting?
It was tiring. I was taking the lead in the school play and had lines to learn. I was in a play called The Bear by Chekhov which only has 2 characters in it and one was a red haired widow with a 22 inch waist – me!! But yes, the school went on exactly as normal except for the Wednesday Corps thing, which I think…….I can’t remember……I think we probably rested. But one is very resilient you know. You had 2 on duty at any one time at the road block, actually operating the block, swinging lamps and all that sort of thing.
So you’d flag a driver down and check their papers with a torch?
Yes and they’d probably say “Oh for God’s sake! Not again!” The lorry drivers got fed up with producing their work tickets. There was a platoon commander who was a sergeant I think. I can’t remember getting very much sleep at all. You have to remember that the nights in June are very short. It wasn’t that bad; not like those ghastly nights in Italy which started at 4.30pm and went on til 7am the next morning. The other thing of interest about the LDV was that one Wednesday afternoon I think in June or July, a Sapper Major turned up to fortify the town and we were deployed with him and I was attached to him as a sort of guide and helper and he asked me about Hyde Lane. If you go into Marlborough and don’t turn up the High Street but turn left, there’s a road that joins up with the Swindon Road. He asked if we had road blocks there and when we said no, he said we’d have to fortify it. So there we were filling a sandbag or 2 and up in what is now the garage of one of the senior houses, we loopholed it, and one of those loopholes which we cut in a door is still there in Hyde Lane! There was good field of fire there, not only straight up the little road, but also looking over the College playing fields. They’ve gone now; covered with all weather pitches.
Were you a cricketer?
I was captain of the house second team. I was never very good. I bowled quite nicely.
As the summer term wore on and no Nuns in parachutes arrived, was there a sense of maybe the worst being over?
Not at all; everybody knew it would take the Germans some time to collect all the boats and in fact they weren’t ready til September, but we didn’t know that. They reckoned they could have taken this country by coup de main if they’d gone in June, but they couldn’t; they had troubles of their own. Anyhow, it was still just the same but it became a slight routine whereas it was brand new and exiting to start with.
But no let up of reading the newspapers or keeping abreast of what was going on?
I know later on you were back home in Kent, but in that summer term did you see aircraft above the school?
At Yatesbury there was an airfield where they were flying Harvards, the noisiest aircraft of the time. They were continually flying around and then they had Blackbird Skuas (?) or something but there was no enemy activity over head……now, LDV in Kent – about the 20th July we broke up and I made my way home and there we were bang in the middle of the Battle of Britain. I lived in Hawkhurst which was a nodal point because there was north south road from the Medway towns down to the coast; there was an east west London/Ryde road and so it was quite important.
Can I ask you a bit about your background and upbringing?
I am the son of a very distinguished officer of the Indian police who ended up as Inspector General of the Bombay Presidency, which was big stuff. He went out there in 1901 and almost retired in 29 but Ghandi was causing so much trouble in Bombay that he was called in to be Commissioner of Police, Bombay and had death threats and all sorts. I didn’t see a lot of him.
Were you born out there?
No; never went out there at all. My eldest sister was born out there but my mother couldn’t stand the summer heat and so she used to have 6 months out there and then come home. A lot of our time was spent with my grandparents on Greenham Common where they lived which was a nice place to grow up. When my mother came home, she took us back to a place called Cove which is near Farnborough. I’ve got 2 older sisters; one 7 years older and the other 18 months older. The eldest one is still alive, but the other died.
You were born in 1922?
October 28th 1922. My grandfather had set up a successful prep school called Horton Hall in Northampton. He was determined it was going to work and it did. Then he moved the school to a marvellous Palladian mansion with 400 acres and a lake. It was a wonderful place to be brought up. Both my grandparents were Scottish and my grandfather managed to impress a lot of people. He retired in 1922 and they went to live on Greenham Common because at the time it was covered in heather and gorse and my grandfather loved heather. After that I went to Marlborough in 1936 and had a rather tiresome time because I had a concealed mastoid – I was ill and kept having ear ache and they couldn’t find out what it was. My parents took me to a nursing home in Clifton where I spent the summer and finally my Godmother’s husband who was a forceful baronet doctor came down and took one look at my chart and they decided to open up the back of my ear because I was dying slowly of septicaemia. It was a completely concealed mastoid and they sorted it out with surgery and I made a good recovery. I then went home and my parents hired tutors to make sure I was kept up to speed mentally and physically.
When did your parents buy the house in Hawkhurst?
My father retired in 1932 and in 1931 he was home on leave and my sister was at Benenden School and she was having a mastoid operation in 1931, and we took a house at Wadhurst in the spring of 1931 and went house hunting and found this marvellous place. It cost £4,000 which was a lot then, but it did have 7 acres and a lake. We were at Hawkhurst from about 1932; beautiful part of Kent.
So suddenly you got to know your father a bit?
Yes, but not for long because when war was declared, I was the one who answered the phone one morning and took the message to give to my father. The voice said Tell your father “Markover – that’s all you need say, and the time of this message.” And that was from the security service of which he was a reserve calling him up. He promptly went to work at Wormwood Scrubs which was evacuated and worked there for a bit. It was counter-intelligence stuff. My sister, in 1939, had started work as a Secretary there. She had to be highly qualified – French and German; short hand typing in French and German and speeds you wouldn’t believe.
They stayed up in London did they?
Yes until there was some kind of cock up and then my father was sent to Blenheim along with a whole chunk of the security service and they lived in huts in the courtyard.
Did he stay in for the whole of the war?
He got ill at one point and ceased to do that work and instead was appointed a food officer or something in Liverpool.
When was he born?
So he was about 43 when you were born?
Was your mother a bit younger than him?
Yes; 15 years younger. My father was head of school at my grandfather’s prep school and she was my grandfather’s only daughter……..right back to Hawkhurst. I formed up to the area commander……
So you got home towards the end of July and you thought you’d carry on doing some LDV?
Yes’ there was a retired admiral who was forming the LDV in Hawkhurst and I went to see him. I was put into a platoon commanded by a young farmer called Alec Piper; the Piper’s had farmed thereabouts for 300 years and I knew him quite well. If he is still alive, he lived at Peasemarsh……..I did a few nights duty standing at the top of a hill looking for parachutists; very dull; no road blocks.
How often would you be expected to don a uniform and go off?
I didn’t have a uniform; just an arm band.
And did you have a shot gun or something?
I had a rifle; an odd rifle. It was like an SMLE but I don’t think there was a bayonet with it. I think it was an experimental 1924 issue and 5 rounds of ammunition, but no clip, just single rounds. I managed to make myself a clip by collecting the connecting pieces of a machine gun belt which fell from the sky from Spitfires and they joined up together and I put them in a little circle. A lot of things were going on just as normal of course. My mother was mad keen on tennis and was constantly going to tennis parties. I remember going to one with her and being given a rocket because I was looking up at the sky. What I saw was a squadron of Heinkels and they were that high; quite low. It didn’t stop my mother! She wanted to carry on with her tennis. I used to get out onto the roof of our house and I nearly had to tope of my head taken off by a Messerschmitt which passed over the garden at about the same height as the house followed by a Spitfire. I don’t know what happened, but I was level with it. It was astonishing.
Was your house on a hill?
Hawkhurst is on an east west ridge. I could see almost to the sea. The nearest was Hastings.
So standing on the roof of your house, you had a good view?
Oh yes; I took my .22 rifle up there once thinking perhaps I could have a shot, but the chap went so bloody fast, I didn’t even have the gun to my shoulder and he was gone. He was going about 350 miles an hour. It was all very exciting but I realised that I didn’t want to be out of uniform. I’d always intended to go to Sandhurst, but they closed it at the start of the war. I took the entrance exam to Oriole College and passed in April 1940, but in June 1940, the senior tutor wrote to me and said there wasn’t a lot of point in me going up there. I was kicking my heels and was fed up and so on the 11th September, I went to Maidstone and joined up.
Any protestations from your mother?
No; she drove me there and she told me later that she drove back in a thunders storm and she did stop and have a little cry……..I joined a young soldiers battalion, which was a very peculiar thing. Read that bit at the top……..they were invented at the same time as the LDV in May 1940. I can leave that with you as long as you promise to let me have it back.
I can just photograph it actually.
Let me go on because you don’t want all this because a lot of it is 1941 stuff. The thing about being in the young solders battalion was first of all that it was forming still when I joined it and it was blistered on to another battalion called the 8th Home Defence Battalion – frightful old chaps; all about 50; terrible motley crew. We were blistered on for administrative purposes. I went to Tonbridge where they were and was billeted at 156 Pembury Road and trained in Tonbridge School grounds; it was the holidays still. We marched up and down on their square and learnt arms drill and did basic training but it wasn’t a training battalion so it was sort of in-house training; very odd. Every day we went to the school. We were issued with First World War equipment – 5 pouches there and 5 there and so on and we did get battle dress though and we had rifles. We were marched everywhere and we carried on our left shoulder a steel helmet and slung over our right shoulder was a respirator. Whenever the air raid siren went, which it did twice or three times a day, we immediately had to put on the steel helmet and put our respirators to the alert position which meant hauling it up in front and all that. To start with it was an absolute penance having to do this but after a day or two we got so used to it, I could go to the alert position just like that; very quick. I lived in Tonbridge and didn’t go home for a long time, to live. Eventually, they formed us – we ceased being an offshoot of the 8th Home Defence Battalion and became the 70th Battalion. The extraordinary thing about it was that we were then put on operational duty. We had companies on airfield defence at Biggin Hill, West Morley and Detling.
How long after you joined was this?
I joined on 11th September and we trained at Tonbridge until near the end of October by which time I’d become legal; I’d given a false age to get in. My 18th birthday was on 28th October, but I said I was born in August just to get in. In November, the company was moved off and we were put to anti-aircraft ammunition guarding. The ammunition came from somewhere to a place called Dunton Green near Seven Oaks where it was off loaded. It was taken up the hill to Fort Halstead and from there a lot of it was moved down to a purpose built ammunition depot which consisted of 11 concrete bunkers, half buried. We guarded that and we were right on the edge of the south east London barrage and that was where they got their ammunition from and every morning, 3 tonners used to arrive and a whole gang of auxiliary pioneer corps chaps used to load these all through the morning and then they’d go off to the various ack ack sites to give them what they required, and this we had to guard. We used to mount guard at about 2pm and at 9am the next morning, half of us stood down. The night guard had 2 sentries patrolling the perimeter and 2 sentries on the gate and that’s what we did. The ack ack over the barrage exploded over our heads at about 15,000 feet or something and there was an awful lot of stuff falling down about us; shell splinters and so on. On one occasion a bomb came howling down. I wasn’t on duty, but apparently it went in with a great thump! But nothing happened. As far as we were concerned, it was an unexploded bomb and so we called the UXB people to come and deal with. The found the entry point and were digging a hole and there was this huge cavern in the clay underneath. The bomb had exploded but it had all gone out sideways instead of upwards and had made this cavern. That’s what they told us. I didn’t go and see it. It was weird though. It was a very odd time but we worked very hard. If you were on 24 hour guard, you got the next days off. It was quite a complicated guard roster. We lived in a bijou residence on the road towards Sidcup. It was cold in the winter.
Can you remember the invasion scare lessening?
No, because by that time I was in the army. We weren’t on the coast……
Were you still a private at that stage?
Oh yes; still a private. There was no officers election in this unit at all and so as a nicely nurtured little boy who went to school in Marlborough, I had to make my way. In January, and it was a dreadfully cold winter in 1940, the only time I’ve ever seriously warn a balaclava. I remember we chopped down the banisters in this house so we could build a fire so we could boil some snow to make a cup of tea on Christmas Day; it was awful! The food was very bad too. It was an experience. In January, they said “Right, we are going to airfield defence now; Gravesend.” They’d created an airfield in Whitehorse Lane or something and we were billeted in what had been an isolation hospital; decent; much better than the previous houses we’d been living in with proper arrangements for loos and basins and things like that. We did an immense amount of training there and we taught how to use machine guns. We had concrete pill boxes around the perimeter and were armed with Lewis guns which we learnt how to use. What an awkward thing that is! They were always going wrong and counter rotating – couldn’t do with it! But they also had the Vickers gun and also the water cooled Browning gun. I was taught these and it was jolly useful later on, especially in Italy where I remember one very dicey position where I lost virtually half my platoon in a German counter attack……we pulled back into the company – I’d been sent out ahead to join another company and we got shot up – this was just east of Perugia,
That must have been on the Albert Line.
All our brigades, one after the other, first brigade – the Argyles came unstuck at Bastia; the fusiliers and the Ghurkas came up at Tubito Ordano (?) a ridge, and we came unstuck……we were absolutely outgunned and the guns were smashed and we left them there but there was a tank there and I asked if he had another of those things they pointed out the front. I knew he had because there were 2 – one mounted coaxially with the bren gun and the other for anti-aircraft. I said “Can I have it?” He said “What for?” I said “To defend ourselves! We’re running short of bren guns and I know how to use it!” He said “Ok!” And I was pleased as punch. Didn’t use it, ever, but it was there and very useful to have a sustained fire weapon in a company as long as……..one thing you should never do is fire about a belt and then take your finger off the trigger and then be ill advised enough to get in front of it because you’ll probably suffer a bullet wound. If you cook off, those Brownings, if you took your finger off, it ended with one in the breech, unfired. I discovered this when I was teaching people how to use them. I was standing in front of one and it went off. The reason I mention this is because I learnt about it at Gravesend from old soldiers. And the other thing I did there was I got fed up with standing around on my feet and they had a thing called the armoured lorry section. I think they were exclusive to airfields. The old ones were a 3 tonner with armour plate put on the back and round the driving cab and armed with 3 or 4 people in the back with Lewis guns. If the Germans landed, their brief was to drive round and round shooting at the German aircraft as they landed. The more modern ones were very smart. They had decent armour an inch thick at least and were fit for purpose. I think they were Bedfords. There was a box integral to the thing, not just bolted on and it was open at the top and it also had port holes and a door at the back. I did some driving and maintenance and learnt NOT to take the red nuts off a wheel…….terrible……the wheel comes apart.
It’s useful this isn’t it? It must have helped in Italy.
God yes; so there I was and went on a course down at Lydd (?) which they ran for these armoured things. I remember a chap from the 70th Buffs was there too. We had some good fun.
Were there some good people in the battalion? People who became friends?
Not really friends. They were cockneys from south east London and I learnt a lot from them. New words! Lovely songs!
But you took to them and they to you and all that sort of thing?
I stopped wearing pyjamas and went to bed in my shirt and underpants like they did! It was warmer in winter. My accent I kept, but I could modify it a bit if I had to and you never called anyone a bastard – that was asking for a mouthful of fist. You could say “You lucky bastard!” But if you said it the other way – “You bastard!” – that was that! We learnt the hard way; the corruption of cooks. The main meal was at midday and they used to come round with a hat and say “Give us sixpence and I’ll make you a nice bread pudding for Sunday!” Absolute rubbish! You never got the bread pudding but if you didn’t give any money, the next plateful you got dished out was mostly gristle. They were a funny lot. I made a good friend there – Peter Mews (?) – wanted to be a jazz drummer. We parted company when I went off to be an officer and by some mistake, after the war when I came home with the battalion, they discovered they’d sent the wrong battalion home – meant to send the first and they sent the 5th. I was transferred – the battalion was cut in half and I remained with the battalion and others were transferred to the 1st Royal Hampshires, and there was Peter Mews! But I didn’t make many lasting friends; you couldn’t really. It was very difficult; it wasn’t like being in a platoon in action where you’ve got something to bind you together. Mostly you were on sentry. At the airfield in Gravesend there was a concrete pill box at each end and believe it or not, they put an anti tank gun in each. Nobody had ever fired the thing. I never met anyone who actually fired one – the Boyes; hell of a thing. When I joined the armoured lorry section, I moved into their billet which had been the morgue; a wooden building. We were on the edge of London and there were one or 2 bombs around the place. One night, there was a whistling noise and this thing came crashing through the roof just as I was getting out of my bunk. It was a long cylinder, this long and this wide; silver coloured and out of one end a sort of red liquid appeared. It was an incendiary and in next to no time it started and we covered it with sand and it burnt through the floor and we threw water at it. Bright magnesium…….we are now in 1941 We had a new CO and the battalion concentrated around Tonbridge. The new CO was a better sort of chap entirely. I suppose a call went out asking if he had any potential officers and I was a lance corporal then. I was interviewed by the colonel and he put me forward and in those days, before the invention of War Office Selection Boards, the selection of officers from the ranks was a very odd thing. You went before the Command Interview Board which consisted of …..well I don’t know who or what they were. I think there was one lieutenant colonel and 2 others, one of whom I suspect was a psychiatrist. This was held in Canterbury and they asked me where I’d been at school and I told them and they asked if I had a school certificate and I said I had. I told them that I’d intended to go to Sandhurst but couldn’t because it was closed. They said “If you pass this Board, do you want to stay in the infantry?” I said “I hadn’t thought of doing anything else.” They said “There is something called the Motor Battalion which is entirely mobile with its own transport and they support the tanks. Would you like to join that?” Well, having been on my poor old flat feet for quite a long time, I said “Yes, I’d like that” and they said I had to go to Winchester to go before the Motor Selection Board. What I didn’t know was that motor battalions were officered by the most superior collection of people. The two regiments were the King’s Royal Rifle Corps – 60th Rifles and the Rifle Brigade and they considered themselves to be equal to the Guards, but slightly better! There were 30 people being interviewed for I think 2 vacancies although they didn’t tell us that. I remember there was an RSM from the Royal Sussex and every sort of rank was there. They called me in and asked me who my father was and asked if I knew anyone in the regiment. Well, the husband of one of my Godmothers was Colonel Dickins who commanded Queen Victoria’s Rifles at Hill 60 and that did it straight away.
So was this for the King’s Royal Rifle Corps?
Yes; before I could go to the OCTU I had to be taught about rifle drill which is quite different to infantry drill; you don’t slope arms for example; you trail arms all the time. I passed through that and went to OCTU which was a motor wing of the 103rd Royal Armoured Corps OCTU at Perham Down, Tidworth. I got on fine there. It was a 6 month course instead of the 3 months ordinary infantry because we did a whole lot of wireless and driving and maintenance and anti tank gunnery; lovely. We had months of radio. About one month before I was due to pass out, I literally passed out, with cerebral spinal meningitis. I was on the danger list and the parents were sent for. However, I recovered and got back to the barracks and reported to the adjutant who said “Sign here! You are now commissioned and your number is such and such. Now go on leave for 2 weeks and then report to the 1st Motor Training Battalion at Chiseldon.” So I sloped off. I was as thin as a rake and I went home and my mother looked after me and got me fully better and then off I went to Chisledon. The reason I was with the 8th Indian Division 5RWK was because in 1943………
Sorry, when did you pass from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps into the Royal West Kent?
We were in a transit camp at Foggia. The 8th Army was going up the Adriatic at that time and this was a draft of motor battalion officers; about 10 of us I think and they couldn’t decide whether motor battalion officers could be used as ordinary infantry officers and this went certainly to Chief of Staff 8th Army, maybe even to Monty. They said we could because they needed officers so badly. They told us we were all going to 8th Indian Division and there was the 1st 5th Essex; the 1st Royal Fusiliers and the 5th Royal West Kents – they said we could choose and I chose the RWK. I joined them just north of Lanciano (?).
When was that?
December 1943. We over to take over from a Canadian battalion because they were clinging on, on the right flank and we took over and I was on the extreme left hand side and I was viciously counter attacked the first night. I was encouraging my soldiers and telling them what I was going to do and a small mortar bomb fell near by. I wasn’t seriously damaged but a fragment went in there (foot); couldn’t stand on anything; boot full of blood. To cut a long story very short, they forgot to take me out that night by mule and so I was there for another night, immobile and being shelled. I interested myself by interrogating German prisoners who we’d collected. The next night this chap said there were no mules and I said “Well, can you get me out somehow?” He said “We’ve got some people going back. We’re sending that German prisoner back, a big German tank gunner and with an Indian stretcher bearer on the other, with your one good foot, do you think you can do it?” I said I thought I could. But it was the most awful journey down a steep, narrow precipitous path to the river Mouro which didn’t have much water in it, and up the other side. They put a bridge there later and it was called Impossible Bridge. They had to bring all the stuff over the bridge first and there wasn’t room to build it from the home side; they had to go over to where I was the other side and build it with their Bailey Bridge stuff and build it back. Anyway, we then got 11 of us in a Jeep – can’t imagine how – and off to the field ambulance and then from there to Basto in an ambulance and then train to eventually Bari and hospital – a dreadful experience. Few people have come across mustard gas casualties and that’s what this hospital was full of.
There’d been an accident hadn’t there?
It wasn’t an accident at all. The Germans sunk 17 ships in Bari harbour and they were filled with ammunition including mustard gas for filling shells, just in case, and petrol. It wasn’t just that they had burns. They’d come in and say “I’ve got a bad cough and my chest hurts” and they were dead the next day; they’d breathed in mustard gas fumes. Awful and I didn’t get a bed there; I was on a stretcher in a corridor. Then over the hills to Naples and then by ship to Algiers and the 94 general hospital where I recovered. I then went back to find my battalion was in Cassino.
So you were in the Diadem battle?
Yes; the reserve brigade – 17 and 19 brigades did the assault and we were the follow up. There was a big picture of me in the Illustrated London News standing next to a dead German on an anti tank gun.
I got a very snotty letter from a former Indian Army officer in the 8th Indian saying he was very disappointed about how little I wrote about the Indian army in the Italy book. I wrote back and told him that it is very difficult because if you start listing every unit that was in a campaign, you’ll bore your reader……….
END NUMBER ONE
Spitfires and Hurricanes aren’t going to be a lot of use if you have an invasion force coming across. What you need are bombers and our RAF bombers weren’t terrible effective in 1940. There is no question that you need air superiority to have a successful invasion. The Germans never got that. In 1942, when we were doing Torch, the Germans had a joint planning team of all services, whereas in 1940, the Germans had no joint planning procedures whatsoever. The Navy didn’t like it at all. Their obsession was British mines. They were asking how they could clear a corridor free of mines and that seemed to be one of their biggest concerns. I don’t really see how it could have worked because I don’ think they’d thought it through enough. This was a continental power; they think in terms of continental warfare; they don’t think in terms of seaborne warfare.
No, well poor chaps they had no let out except through the Baltic. After I left the regiment, I spent my latter years in the intelligence corps – G3 intelligence: HQ Berlin: British Sector and that was really interesting; got up to all sorts of tricks there. That was the height of the cold war – ‘54 to ’56. I then transferred to the intelligence corps because I could see myself going back to my battalion as the most junior of 14 majors in the battalion. They formed a regular cadre of intelligence officers; never had one before and in ’56 they formed that and I joined straight away.
And you got to Colonel?
When did you leave the army?
1974; after 33 years. The thing about intelligence is that I realised that the basis of everything you do in the army is intelligence. I’ve done intelligence at low level. I’ve been in the War Office and the MoD doing intelligence at a strategic level and that was quite interesting because you get involved in inter-service arguments. When we were trying to form the Jump Jet for the aircraft carriers, the RAF didn’t like it; fought tooth and nail and the Navy said it was essential because they had to be able to get off and shoot down the Badger Bombers which were sending coordinates to one of their Charlie Class submarines to target our missiles from 40, 50 or 60 miles away on these ships and unless you’d got a very precise position of where they are, the thing is going to miss, so they needed this bomber link. If you shoot bombers down then that is it. There was a frightful argument about it and eventually the committee chairman said “Let’s ask the defence intelligence staff,” of which I was coordinator – chief of staff. I knew I’d have to have someone from the RAF and someone from the RN; also a technical intelligence chap. I decided to chair it myself as an ignorant old infantry man. A few days later, I got a very uncheerful letter from an air commodore asking me to explain myself. I said that after consulting my experts on every occasion that Soviet exercised had been observed, this is what had happened. We didn’t hear any more in the way of arguments and the Navy got its Harriers, thank God. I once wrote paper years and years ago which didn’t see the light of day saying that really we could disband the air force except for strategic reconnaissance and strategic transport. The rest could be done by the Fleet Air Arm, the Army Air Corps and that it wasn’t necessary to have this enormous thing.
There are those who believe that now.
I was saying earlier about Gravesend – when we left there, we went off to Tonbridge to be trained properly and the reason we were allowed to do that was after the Greek Campaign, it was decided that the RAF could bloody well look after their own and so at that stage – 1941 – they formed the RAF regiment, the Airfield Defence and so we were sent away. What is interesting now is that they have got the RAF regiment in Afghanistan doing offensive patrols like infantry men.
So you fought all the way through Italy, from Cassino on…….?
Apart from being wounded a couple of times, yes.
What was the second time?
That was on the Segnio (?) – I was blown up by a German ?? It was almost self-inflicted. This thing was sticking in the ground outside battalion HQ and I said “What’s that?” And they said “A buzz (?).” I press the tit not knowing that the charge was contained in the tube and it went off with a hell of a bang. I think I was only away for about 10 days. I was commanding a mortar platoon.
I seem to remember the 8th Indian were…….where were they on the Gothic Line?
North of Florence.
So you were with 13 corps on the right of the Americans, under Clarke?
Yes; awful weather. We were up there at the end of October; it was wet and cold and miserable up in the mountains – 5 miles to jeep head and everybody coming up from jeep head had to carry a 3 inch mortar bomb with him and it was misery. We were doing a night in the forward position which meant standing all night – that was the first position. The second night, I think we were theoretically free, but probably escorting mules and the third night we were ?? for the forward position. The night went on forever and ever. Eventually I joined yet another company; my platoon was detached and there was trouble because morale was not good in the 8th Army as I know you must be aware of what it was like in October 1944. There was a lot of absence and desertion and it happened to me. We were going forward up a path through our forward position after 2 platoons from another company had already gone forward to make an attack and I had to join up with them and I went up this track. The evening stomp (?) came down from the Germans and the leading section simply turned and ran straight back at me down the path. I put my rifle up like that and he crashed into it, but you can’t stop a group like that. So there we were, 2 sections instead of 3; 2 bren guns instead of 3. I got them going but Jesus, it wasn’t half hard work. It wasn’t that the leadership was bad; it was that they had just had enough. The Italians had been fighting one way or another since just before Alamein and nobody would take promotion in my platoon; didn’t want the responsibility and so you are faced with that, and to have people rushing back at you, but you can’t let everybody else down; you’ve got to go on and of course this spreads like wildfire. If you’ve lost one section, then the rest of the people in that platoon think ‘Christ! We’ve got to do a 3 section job with only 2 sections.’ We managed to get there, but only just and I had to go back and fetch a few, but it was the middle of the night…….but if I’d failed, and that platoon had failed, then the company would be only down to 2 platoons and they wouldn’t have been able to …….it was a question of holding ground. It was awful; like a dreadful disease once it starts and it was funny because you could tell the people who really needed to be sent back because they’d had enough. I had a corporal like that who was an excellent man but he’d had the whole of the winter of 1943 with no reinforcements – that dreadful winter – nobody to take over from him and it wore him down. I realised this after a couple of incidents and told the CC that we had to send him somewhere, otherwise there would be trouble and we got rid of him and that was all right. But there were some ordinary reinforcements who arrived just before Diadem. Before Diadem, we were in the railway station, or my platoon was. Cassino was the town and the railway station……
The town must have been flattened by then?
Oh yes; the Coldstream Guards were next door to us and if you rang to speak to the colonel you got this impeccable voice saying ‘I’ll see if I can find him. I think he’s in the ante-room.’ But it wasn’t fun in the railway station. I was in a hole that high and that wide and you couldn’t move by day and if you moved, you were done for and that’s what happened to one of the platoon positions of the previous company. A chap was seen in a house and within 6 hours, the house was flattened with all of them in it. I could see the monastery up there in the evening; could see how dark it was. We were only about 120 yards form the German positions. They had water in the hummocks (?) and we used to send water parties over – we had no water. The platoon commander said ‘We didn’t see you over there but we saw your water parties; hope you enjoyed the dead German water.’
But everything was boiled. It was tough and that was Diadem and then we were in reserve when we went on and after that, apart from getting terribly shelled for days on end at the bottom of Monte Cassino but past the monastery, up Route 6, there is a village called Pia da Monte (?). We tried to go forward and couldn’t. Holes were about their tanks and we had to stop them shooting our forward company and then we saw them and the artillery totally destroy the front of that village. We weren’t allowed to go on because they were waiting to come down from the top, which they did. We spent 4 or 5 days there, sitting; listening to a very heavy German gun crumping away. We lost good men there and it was difficult. After that we had a lovely time; swanned right down to Assisi.
I remember talking to this chap from the Liecesters, 46 division, and he showed me a letter he’d written to his parents telling them he was reading Memoirs of an infantry officer to remind himself that however bad it got, it wasn’t as bad as it was on the Western Front. I said ‘It was every bit as bad as it was on the Western Front. Your chances as a first lieutenant, platoon commander, company commander were about the same as they were on the Western Front.’
But it didn’t go on quite so long. But Corriano Ridge, that was dreadful and a terrible thing happened to the First Armoured Division.
Yes, they got decimated; crazy. Just to go back to 1940 – you had the 6 weeks where you’d broken up from school before you joined up on September the 11th. You told me about the planes going straight over the roof, but was air battle watching a regular feature and picking up bullet casings and all that?
Oh yes, every day somewhere.
You’d hear them and see the con trails?
But otherwise, were you just carrying on as normal?
Yes, I think we were.
You were at home. Were you playing tennis and things?
Yes; to start with, but I can remember in early September when they bombed the docks and first got into London, then we realised because you see the smoke, even in Hawkhurst; columns of it; awful.
Bombing was still new to the world so when you see something like that…..
You think every bomb is going to hit you and of course they didn’t just like every shell didn’t.
I am wondering what it would have been like for you as a 17 year old seeing that smoke rising and who knows how many people had been killed by those bombs……
I think you have to remember that there were air raids in the First World War in London. Why we didn’t shoot all those Zeppelins down I’ll never know! Bloody great stupid things. But of course there weren’t anti-aircraft guns. I remember seeing these anti-aircraft shells at Badger’s Mount. You could get two 3.7 shells – fixed ammunition – you understand the term? In a case about that wide and about that high, but if it was .45 you wanted – the really heavy ones – you had one sodding case about that long and that wide and it was as much as two men could carry; huge things.
Did you have any sense of what was going on in the air battle? Whether we were winning or losing, or no idea?
We never thought we were going to lose; that’s the extraordinary thing. It was difficult but we’d get through it. They burnt London; burnt the docks but people went on. You read the papers; listened to the BBC – they were carrying on.
Were you broadly Churchill fans in those days?
Because he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea to start off with.
But nobody was not a Churchill fan in 1940, apart from Halifax; dreadful fellow. He was just for giving in. What would have happened? Hitler made peace moves in July or August, didn’t he?
He never wanted to go to war with Britain.
Of course he didn’t; thought he might lose! It’s an island with a big navy and as he discovered, a bloody good air force. We had radar and he didn’t; bloody marvellous!
And proper ground controllers as well. The Dowling system was genius. What was lacking in the British fighters was fire power; that’s where they were short. They needed cannons, but they came soon enough.
I wouldn’t have liked to have been hit by 8 machine gun bullets.
Well…….the trouble is, if you are trying to shoot down other planes, you’ve got to spend more time firing your guns than you do if you’ve got cannons. To shoot down a Heinkel, one cannon and a judiciously shot cannon shell……..
A judiciously shot machine gun would put the pilot out.
I think it’s easier with cannons and then you don’t have to spend so much time on the target.
One of the things they did when I was in Egypt waiting to go to Italy, they had a sort of bombing range and Hurricanes with cannons slung underneath – tank hunting things. How the wings stayed on I don’t know.
Panzer busters! They were amazing; a very solid gun platform the Hurricane but completely outmoded by 1940 really.
They were very agile weren’t they?
They were but they had a terrible rate of climb; that was the big problem and it’s one of the things you really need.
END JOHN WILSON