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Copyright (C) 2004 by John Cox.



COMING OF AGE

1939-1946

BY JOHN COX

(Please see the HTML version of this eBook for 19 photographs)


CONTENTS

Foreword.

Rumours of War. March 1939-1940________________________________1

Plymouth. March 1940-July 1942________________________________10

Bowden Battery. July 1942-August-1942 ________________________14

Oxshott. July 1942-August 1942________________________________34

Aldershot. August 1942-December 1942__________________________37

Going South. January 1943-April 1943__________________________42

India. May 1943-June 1943_____________________________________53

Iraq. June 1943-August 1944 __________________________________57

No. 5 Advanced Base Workshops. June 1943-August 1944__________63

Desert Life. June 1943-August 1944____________________________68

No. 1 Base Workshops. August 1944-August 1945_________________74

Tel-el-Kebir. August 1945-January 1946________________________93

In the End. January 1946_____________________________________105



FOREWORD

Now that the Second World War is some 60 years past this would seem to
be a good time to collate all the various chapters that I've written
over the last few years and present them as an entity. No war can
really be described as a "good" war especially by the families of those
who didn't return or by those who returned maimed but in the sense that
I went through it from the start until the finish and emerged
unscratched I suppose that mine could be called a "good" war.

Though I spent just under three years in the Middle East in Iraq and
Egypt I was never engaged in any action and what follows in these pages
describes the more mundane side of military life. I didn't start
writing these chapters until about 50 years after the war and have
relied heavily on memory, with some photographs but no diaries; the
content is substantially accurate. Dates are included in the Contents
page; the starting and ending dates are true and the intervening dates
are not more than a month out.

John Cox
Ottawa, Canada March 2004


RUMOURS OF WAR

It was 1938 and the Spanish civil war was still in progress; Germany was
flexing her muscles having effected an Anschluss with Austria and having
out-manoeuvred Britain and France over the matter of Czechoslovakia. It
was obvious that a war was coming but Britain had allowed her forces and
armaments to run down and was in no position to engage in one. At that
time I was 20 years old and was working as a draughtsman in an
engineering firm; I believe conscription had started though I'm not
certain exactly when and there was always a possibility that my job
would be classified as a reserved occupation. To this day I don't know
whether or not I would have been called up because together with my
school friend I joined the Territorial Army.

With war looming closer and closer new units were being formed
everywhere and No. 2 Company of the 5th AA Divisional Signals was born
at The Wayfarers Club on Worral Road near the top of Blackboy Hill in
Bristol. My friend and I had been very interested in radio or wireless
as it was called in those days and it seemed to us that a signal unit
would fit in well with our hobby, we might even be of some use to the
army. Many others had the same idea especially employees of the Post
Office which was at that time the sole legal agency in Britain for all
communications, so the recruiting hall was full of potential soldiers on
the night we went to sound things out. Among the dozens there we found
many of our old school friends and some of the members of our church.
We didn't join up that night but thought things over for a day or two
saying nothing to our parents who might have raised objections then made
a second trip to enlist.

Some lads we knew were already commissioned and were to interview us
before we signed on the dotted line. Our commitment to the force
obliged us to attend for drill on two nights a week and to spend two
weeks at camp each year; our employers were compelled by law to give us
the two weeks off from work with no penalties To start with it was a
case of the myopes leading the blind, true there were a few ex-WWI
veterans and others who had been members of their school Cadet Corps but
we could hardly be called a highly disciplined group. We didn't enquire
too deeply into the nature of our duties or what exactly we were getting
ourselves into but were content to let life unfold in its own way.

After answering a few perfunctory questions the swearing-in followed
with our right hands on a bible; some jokers later told us that we were
not really soldiers because we had been sworn-in on a dictionary but
that was a tale I heard many many times. Then came the issue of
equipment, this was rather sparse, all of it being of WWI vintage or
earlier, khaki tunics with brass buttons, drainpipe trousers,
second-hand boots and what seemed quite remarkable brown leather
bandoliers for the 50 rounds of .303 ammunition with which we were never
issued. Were we then to be cavalry? A tin hat, forage cap, webbing
belt with bayonet frog, bayonet and scabbard completed our equipment
though later on we were given collar badges and brass letters to affix
to our epaulets proclaiming us to be Royal Signals.

My parents when told of my enlistment had different reactions, father
said little, probably thinking of his experiences in WWI but mother who
would not let me join the Boy Scouts or the school Cadet Corps because
they were too militaristic said, "you're a fool!" At the time I
thought that was a bit hard but six months into the war and I had to
admit she had a point.

One or two with recent military experience gave us rifle drill with the
two SMLE (short model Lee-Enfield) rifles allocated to our unit and we
did a bit of marching and saluting. Our CO, Captain Sommerville, told
us that our saluting resembled that of a disgruntled taxi driver giving
thanks for a small tip but we did improve. After a few weeks of
desultory drilling we were told to report to The General Post Office in
Small Street to get acquainted with teleprinters. Good, we thought, now
we'll get our hands on some electro-mechanical equipment and learn the
inner workings of the Creed machines only to be disappointed to find
that the primary purpose of our being there was to learn to type. The
Creed teleprinters were only capable of transmitting 66 words a minute
but this was academic because we didn't advance much beyond the
"hunt-and-peck" stage.

About this time the regulations were changed somewhat; our two weeks at
camp were extended to four weeks and I was due to go to Southsea Castle
on September 3rd 1939. I think it was about August 28th that the
Territorial Army was embodied (that was their term for mobilisation).
At 4-30 am father was awakened from his slumber with a knock at the door
and Corporal Reg Pinnel stood outside with the engine of his motor-bike
combination still running to tell me to get up to HQ right away; then
off he sped to awaken others. I dressed hurriedly, had a cup of tea and
a bite and then walked up to Worral Road, walked because it was too
early for the bus service to start its daily routine.

When I got there it was a bit of a shambles really with dozens of men
milling around trying to sort themselves out and generally getting
themselves organised. At about 9am I walked along to the end of Worral
Road to the bank of phone boxes then existing near the top of Blackboy
Hill and phoned my office to tell them that I would not be in that day
nor in the foreseeable future; that was a little prophetic because I
didn't return there to work for six-and-a-half years.

In the first few days we learned a little of the set-up; HQ was to be
the gun operations room, the GOR, from which the AA guns surrounding
Bristol would be directed. Some of us would be GOR personnel, others
would form the Line Section maintaining communications with the gun
sites, while a few would be responsible for the Quartermaster's stores
and general clerical work. How many of us there were I can only guess,
probably upwards of two hundred because we also had to supply similar
groups to our detachments at Plymouth and Portland.

To get some experience of aircraft plotting six of us including me were
sent to the RAF at Filton where we were housed in splendid isolation in
an otherwise empty vast hanger; daily we reported to the Operations Room
where we became acquainted with the strange jargon of the RAF, Angels,
Bandits, Red Leader, Tally-Ho and the like as mock raids and
interceptions were practised. If we had been on duty for the night
shift we found sleep very hard to come by the next morning because
fighter planes were constantly taking off and landing, even when they
were stationary their engines were ticking over. For some reason or
other there was an Avro Anson attached to the station that took off and
landed periodically; it once caught fire as it landed but the fire was
quickly extinguished.

Guard duties were carried out when I was there by members of The
Gloucester Regiment, the "Glosters", regulars and we used to mingle with
them in the canteen in our off-duty periods, being introduced to army
songs that we joined in with gusto as a pianist accompanied us. As the
beer flowed the pianist was treated to the odd pint and occasionally the
lid of the piano was raised so that it could join in the jollity and a
pint poured over its strings to the shout of "and one for the
piano." Life was exciting, we were free from parental control and we
were on the verge of something big though in the background there was
this little niggle of apprehension about the future.

Early on my inadequacy as a teleprinter operator was discovered by an
RAF corporal whom I had last seen as a 13 year old when he lived a
couple of doors away from me, but only he and I knew. On September 3th
the rumours of war changed to reality; I was in the canteen when the
news came over the wireless that war had been declared on Germany and in
our ignorance we waited for the bombs to drop but of course nothing
really happened for a few months apart from the odd reconnaissance
sortie. Winter was coming on and we still didn't have greatcoats though
at great expense we had added swagger canes to our wardrobes to assist
in our deportment and keep our hands out of our pockets. Something had
to be done so we were issued with dark blue greatcoats that had
originally been destined for the Royal Navy or Air Raid Wardens. Gloves
had not been issued either so we used our own and a right motley crew we
looked when we appeared in public places, khaki uniforms, blue
greatcoats, black boots and brown leather gloves.

Perhaps this would be a good time to mention that as Territorials we
were expected to supply some personal items of kit. If we provided boot
brushes, hair brushes, comb, button stick, housewife (hussive),
underclothes and some other odds-and-sods to take with us to the annual
camp we would be rewarded with the magnificent sum of ten shillings.
Until 1942 I was never issued with a complete kit but over that period I
was given some replacements of personal items; we also changed our WWI
uniforms for battle dress. We didn't lose our leather bandoliers
however and we were supplied with the Royal Navy's black leather
gaiters. We were still not sartorially attractive.

But to get back to August 1938; the round-up of civilians who were now
to be embodied was not without its humour, in the early hours of the
morning Reg Pinnel happened to meet one of his flock in the Kingsdown
area and told him of the situation. Len was on his rounds delivering
milk; his milk float was of a new type, battery driven at a walking pace
it allowed the roundsmen to walk by its side starting and stopping as
necessary and obviating any muscular effort on his part. Len took his
orders literally, left his milk float where it was in the road, went
home, changed into his uniform and reported to HQ. Then he phoned his
employer and told him where he could find the milk float leaving it up
to the employer to mollify all the irate customers.

In December 1939 I returned from Filton to Worral Road and for three
months became a member of a GOR shift. We had no plotting table but
instead a map of south-east England hung on one wall, we of course were
south-west but I suppose that south-east was better than nothing.
Coloured pins were used to mark the position of planes. Information on
aircraft activity was given to us over a permanently manned phone line
connected to No.11 Fighter Group at Uxbridge and the lucky man who was
given the job of listening sat in the middle of the room on an office
type swivel chair wearing a telephonist's head-and-breast-set doing
nothing but waiting. As soon as the ringing assailed his ears he
answered, "Bristol," and then yelled to the rest of the group,
"Operations," at which they were supposed to get ready to relay
any incoming information to the gun sites by phone. While I was there I
don't recall any plots coming from Uxbridge that concerned our area.
The shout of, "Operations" was also supposed to alert the Gun
Control Officer, GCO, of the Royal Artillery who then stood by his wall
map, coloured pins at the ready, waiting to give some relevant
information to the gun sites; however this was the time of the "phony
war" and the boredom was considerable.


MY GOR SHIFT, WORRAL ROAD, 1940.

I think it was in the early days just after we were embodied that we
were given our medicals, it was a bit of a joke really, a cursory
once-over with the stethoscope and an eyesight test on a standard eye
chart at a range of five or six feet; for a hearing test the MO stuck a
pocket watch in my left ear, "Can you hear that?" "Yes," I
replied, then in my right ear, "and that?" "Yes."
"OK." And I had passed. And apart from the time of my final
discharge from the army when they were trying to make sure that I
couldn't make any post-war claims for incapacity and the times when I
was discharged from hospital that was the only medical examination I
ever had.

One possible advantage of being stationed in Bristol was that I could go
home when I was not on duty but home was a fourpenny bus ride from
Worral Road and this double journey together with ten Woodbine
cigarettes cost me a day's allowance (I was getting two shillings a day
but was allotting one shilling a day to my mother who incidentally never
spent it but saved it up for my return). I usually went home after a
night shift and so was rather tired and not very good company; after a
month or so of this routine I decided that I would be better off away
from Bristol and applied for a transfer to Plymouth.

The war was not very old before the Post Office started to get
concerned over the loss of some of their key personnel to the forces; it
was one thing to have their employees playing at soldiers in their own
time but quite another matter to lose some of their qualified staff on a
semi-permanent basis. So just before I went to Plymouth an arrangement
was made that allowed the Post Office to claim back all their employees
who did not have an army trade. The army could see all their
Territorial signal units being drastically reduced and took swift
action. In a blanket approach army trade ratings were given to as many
members of my company as possible, not only Post Office employees; I was
called before Captain Sommerville.

"You are?"

I identified myself

"I believe you've been spending your drill nights at the Post Office,
is that correct?"

"Sah!" (I was now learning the lingo).

"On teleprinters?"

"Sah!" There was a short pause as he looked over the papers in
front of him and then,

"You are now a teleprinter operator class III. Dismiss." A smart
salute, about turn, quick march and I was out of the Company Office with
an extra shilling a day but there was now no way my employers could
claim me back even if they wanted to.

About this time a new face appeared on the scene, a real live regular
soldier, Sergeant Millen, an infantry regular I believe but from what
regiment I don't know and he was going to change us into an efficient
military unit. He was always perfectly turned out, his uniform
spotless, creased where it should be but otherwise creaseless. He was a
disciplinarian and he certainly made a difference to us but one thing
always intrigued me - his facial expression. I never saw him smile or
laugh, in fact I could never detect the slightest change in his
expression that would denote any emotion. Later in the war I believe he
earned a commission; perhaps he enjoyed life and had some fun but one
could never tell.

I'm not certain how many vehicles made up our transport section, I know
we had Morris and Austin utility vans, a five ton lorry and some 30cwt
Bedford lorries whose gearboxes had a peculiar and distinctive whine.
The Bedfords were usually the workhorses of the Line Section while the
utilities were the general runabouts used for work and pleasure. We had
one officer, a major, who was over-fond of his liquor, he used to
frequent The Mauritania in Park Street; late at night he would phone and
in a slurred voice demand that a utility van and driver be sent to pick
him up. This happened on many occasions and one night when he arrived
back at HQ he staggered into the guard room and with a drawn hand gun
proceeded to hold up the guard. He was disarmed and a report made out.
The sequel? I don't know, we didn't see him again.

Originally we had all signed on for home service but after the war
started we were asked to agree to serve overseas, this we all did,
signing to this effect. Looking back I don't suppose it would have made
any difference had we declined, after all those who were conscripted
were not given the choice but it was a nice gesture on our parts.
Having now become reasonably proficient in those military essentials,
marching, saluting and rifle drill the next step was to go on a range
and fire a few rounds. The nearest rifle range was at Bristol
University and a group of about 12 of us was taken there on a most
unmilitary vehicle, a soft drinks lorry. This had no tailboard or
sideboards to speak of and we all stood up on the flat bed, the front
row holding on to the back of the cab and the rest holding on to each
other. We made the double journey without losing anyone. The rifle
range was indoors and we fired .22 rimfire from a standard .303 rifle
fitted with a Morris tube. I believe we only fired 10 rounds each, with
moderate success, but that was the only time I fired a rifle until 1942.


PLYMOUTH

The journey down to Plymouth was the longest rail trip that I had ever
taken alone and I was eager and excited about it. I was travelling with
all my kit of course and I was learning how to stow it without
interfering with other passengers. As we pulled away to the south-west
from Temple Meads station the familiar scenes around Bristol gave way to
the flatter country of north Somerset and later on to the red soil of
Devon. At Plymouth North Road station I detrained but I have no memory
now of how I reached South Raglan Barracks in Devonport. The barracks
were typically army, grey, spartan, uninviting and ugly; my spirits
sank. I was allocated quarters in a small room together with six or
eight others; beds consisted of three bed-boards on two low wooden
trestles augmented with three "biscuits" for comfort and the whole
ensemble was completed with four blankets.

I was directed to join a GOR team and shown the ropes as it were. The
GOR was located on Mount Wise in the end room of Hamoaze House. A large
map of the south-west of England had been painted on an expanse of dark
blue linoleum, this formed the plotting table in the centre of the room;
to one side a dais accommodated the GCO and also the naval anti-aircraft
liaison officer (NAALO) for this was a combined operations room. We
signalmen sat around the plotting table waiting for something to happen.
Assorted naval petty-officers, Royal Artillery gunners and bombardiers
made up an eight-hour shift.

As in Bristol one signalman sat with a head-and-breast-set permanently
connected to No.11 Fighter Group at Uxbridge and the routine was much
the same. Those doing the plotting made up wooden blocks with plastic
chips of letters and numbers to indicate the identity, size and height
of a particular plot adjacent to a coloured arrow, green for friendly,
red for hostile, showing the location and direction of the aircraft.
This was quite an improvement on Bristol's coloured pins. There was
another improvement too, the Post Office type switchboard was replaced
by two wooden desk mounted units, each fitted with 10 switches and
indicator lights. Every switch and light combination was connected to a
gun site or a searchlight station and any combination of sites could be
called individually or simultaneously. Each site acknowledged receipt
of a message by pressing a button, this caused the appropriate light to
glow in the GOR. In this way messages could be broadcast to all sites
at once; those sites whose lights did not glow were contacted again
individually and the message repeated. Frequently in the heat of the
moment gunners would forget to acknowledge causing some irritation and
on one occasion an exasperated GCO ordered me to reprimand the
miscreant. Having got the official blessing I proceeded to do just
that, translating his order into the vernacular most effectively; I was
rewarded with most obsequious apologies elevating my rank to that of
"sir". Later I discovered that my correspondent was a major, outranking
our GCO, fortunately he didn't know who I was.

These tasks were performed in the RAF by WAAF's and we were told from
the beginning that we would be replaced eventually by the ATS but by the
time I left Plymouth in 1942 they still hadn't taken over. It was quite
a boring job at times and most of us hoped for something more
challenging.

The Line Section's work was a little better, they went out daily,
running more lines and repairing those damaged in air raids; in our
detachment there was no establishment for a draughtsman but the Line
Section wanted a record of the routes of all their lines and so I
drifted into the job. Armed with a one-inch-to-the-mile Ordnance Survey
map I produced the necessary drawings; it was also alleged that I marked
the locations of all the coffee shops in the area but there's no truth
to it. Phone lines across the country followed whatever path was most
suitable, using twisted Don8 cable that was attached to any convenient
feature, trees telegraph poles or buildings. In the case of the line to
Fort Tregantle I spent a day with others on a fatigue party digging a
trench across the road in which the cable was to be buried. A call went
out to the local populace asking for empty cotton reels; these were to
be used not specifically as insulators but rather as attachment points
offering less fretting to the cable than a nail alone would do.

The GCO's varied in rank but I don't remember seeing anyone above the
rank of captain, on the other hand two of the NAALO's were
lieutenant-commanders, a couple were lieutenants in the "wavy navy" and
one was a Canadian, a lieutenant in their "wavy navy". He was a breath
of spring, light hearted and humorous and compared to our lot relatively
undisciplined. Commander Bond was, I think, a serving officer but
Commander Staples had been recalled from retirement; he was a gentle,
polite father figure, at least that's how he appeared to me. One
lieutenant was Viscount Trapraine who was responsible for producing the
plotting table map. I heard of him after the war as being a member of
the crew of a square-rigged sailing ship. Another lieutenant was Vivian
Ellis, composer of Bless the Bride.

Plymouth was ringed around with anti-aircraft guns, Rame, Down Thomas,
Wembury, Crownhill and Tregantle come to mind as being equipped with
3.7's, while other sites such as Bovisand and Staddon Heights were more
lightly armed. The GOR had lines to all of them as well as lines to
some searchlight stations. In addition to the army sites the navy
augmented the fire power with the guns on Breakwater Fort and the guns
of any ship that may have been in dock at the time. The cruiser
Newcastle seemed to be in the area for an unusually long time and she
had a Walrus flying boat, a most ungainly craft with a pusher propeller.
In the early days we took advantage of the lack of action by organising


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