With the North Irish Horse in England
Late in the afternoon, one early day in February 1942, a Bedford 3-tonner deposited ten Troopers, wearing the RTR cap badge, at the RHQ of their new Regiment at Ogbourne St. George, Wiltshire.
After a few words from the RSM, three of us were escorted to 'B' Squadron's HQ where, following a brief welcome, it was off to the huts housing 2 and 3 Troops and, in my case, the one where HQF (Headquarters Fighting Troop) was domiciled under the watchful eye of Sgt H M (Roy) Burns. Delivered in various Irish brogues, the warmth of the greeting I received will always be remembered.
The following morning we assembled in front of Squadron HQ. Coming to attention, we were first introduced to SSM W. Docksey who, in turn, introduced Major J. Rew. The Officer Commanding's warm welcome, delivered in the "booming" voice soon to become most familiar, was more akin to that of a friendly uncle than that of a Major to a group of newly arrived Troopers. After informing us that the Regiment had only been in England for a few weeks, the Major went on to explain we had been posted the NIH to make up for the shortage of crew members due to the Regiment being re-equipped with Churchill tanks in place of Valentines. Another reason given was that we had volunteered for service, a basic requirement of a Regiment made up, apart from Regular Army personnel, entirely of volunteers.
Upon dismissal, we were marched over to the Squadron Quartermaster's office where we were issued Cap Badges (this writer's third) and a pair of Shoulder Tabs. Now, properly dressed, commenced what was to be four years and four months with a group of the finest men to serve in the British Army.
Next it was off to the Tank Park to become acquainted with Bangor, commanded by Sgt Roy Burns, of which I was now a crew member. (All of 'B' Squadrons tanks were named after towns in Ireland beginning with a 'B'. RHQ tanks with a 'D', the other two Squadrons with an 'A' and 'C') Compared with the tanks at Warminster the Mark I Churchills were huge. In fact, so large, that the 2-pdrs looked like popguns!
A few days later, on Thursday, 26th February, we were whisked away to the range at Castle Martin, South Wales, for several days of live firing. What an exciting beginning to life with the NIH!
Training went on unabated as March moved smoothly into April. As the responsibility of an Operator, other than looking after the tank's wireless set, was to load the 2-pdr gun, practice doing this with dummy shells occupied much of the time. After tapping on the Gunner's right arm, to indicate that the gun had been loaded, it was drilled into us to keep clear of its recoil. Loading of the BESA co-axially mounted machine gun was the responsibility of Gunners which fact segues nicely into the first of the stories of Trooper Tommy Abbott.
Tommy, from Éire, was HQF Troop's stand-up comic. His and our favourite, hilarious story was about his bicycle which had a BESA, co-axially mounted on the handlebars, belt-fed from the saddle. Unfortunately, the irrepressible Tommy committed some misdemeanour, for which he was court martialled on 25th April, earning him a sentence of 84 days detention. More of him later.
Earlier in the month, the NIH was visited by its Honorary Colonel-in-Chief, The Earl of Shaftesbury. The Regiment marched in review with each Squadron, at the appropriate moment, getting the command, "Eyes Right."
On 10th May, tanks of 'B' and 'C' Squadrons were loaded on flat-cars of the Great Western Railway for transportation to Tavistock, Devon. Once there, the Squadrons moved to the south side of Dartmoor for a period of field training, 'B' Squadron working with the 9th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The order of the day was that the field exercises were to be conducted with utmost realism. One tank commander, who shall be nameless, took this order much too literally. On being told that the 'enemy' was located behind a row of houses at the foot of the slope leading up to the moor, the residents were treated to the astonishing sight of a Churchill tank ploughing its merry way through their front gardens. Apparently all was forgiven when the War Department agreed to restore the gardens to their pristine condition.
During a break in the exercises tank crews were issued with miner's type helmets with built-in head sets. In the absence of Sgt Burns, Bangor was commanded by a 2/Lt whose name, also, shall not be revealed. Espying a dead tree, over the intercom, came the order for L/Cpl Dion (Dick) Hayward, our driver, to knock it down. This would have worked out fine but for a branch falling down landing atop our temporary commander's head. He was stunned for a while, fortunately the helmet saved him from serious injury. The helmets were not a success, consequently, they never became standard issue.
At the conclusion of the exercises, on 24th May, we proceeded to Perranporth, Devon, for further training with the infantry units. We were comfortably billeted in the Promenade Hotel from which, as the name suggests, could be seen surf from the Atlantic Ocean rolling onshore. On 31st May, the exercises came to a premature end following an unfortunate accident. The infantry were given lattices to line the walls of slit trenches to strengthen them sufficiently to not collapse should an enemy AFV drive over them. Whether it was due to the great weight of the Churchills or, more likely, to the soft sand in which they were dug, one slit trench collapsed killing its occupants. The powers-that-be decided not to let it be known which tank it was that caused the accident. Thus three enjoyable weeks in the field ended on a sad note.
Back in Ogbourne St. George came the news that the Regiment was about to move to Norfolk, to participate in another field exercise. Also, when the exercise was over, it would be moving into new quarters at Brandon, some seven miles north-west of Thetford.
A Sojourn in Norfolk
On 7 June the tanks, once again, were loaded on flat-cars of the Great Western Railway which took photographs of the operation.
Exercise Scorpion in participation with 2 Corps over, we took up residence nearby the village of Brandon, the only remaining place where the ancient skill of flint-knapping is still practiced. Located in a pine forest, our living-quarters were in the ubiquitous Nissen Hut.
While much happened during the Regiment's stay in Norfolk, as spelled out in the War Diaries, for the purpose of this narrative other events, such as the arrival of additional personnel, are of more relevance.
Towards the end of July, several additions to Regimental strength arrived from the Warminster and Catterick RTR Training Regiments, among whom were Troopers Hughes, Young, Wheatley and Knott. More of these four, who were posted to 'B' Squadron will appear later, in the meantime, the reason why the last mentioned came to be nicknamed "Ibe."
First it, is necessary to explain that the last train from the south arrived at Thetford station between 0030 and 0100 hours. As many who were given a one-day pass spent it in Cambridge, the deadline of 2359 hrs, for checking in at the guardroom, was not strictly enforced. In fact, for most of the time, a Bedford 3-tonner would be waiting to transport personnel on the seven mile journey back to camp.
Now to the arrival of Trooper Knott. By the time the formalities were taken care of, it was past 0200 hours before he was escorted to the Nissen hut housing 2 Troop. Stumbling, in the dim light to locate his bed, he awakened from deep sleep, among others, the Troop Sgt who asked, in a voice most thunderous, "Who the heck are you?" In a broad Devonshire accent came the response, "I be Knott, I be." Henceforth he was always Ibe Knott.
Rumours, or more accurately conjectures, about the future, constantly were topics of conversation. For instance, it had been decided that all personnel needed to be "toughened up." As part of the process, reveille was set for 0500 followed by a run, of about a mile, for a swim in a small stream-fed lake. Then, when it became common knowledge, that the Regiment had recently received mobilisation orders, the increased physical activities gave rise to the rumour that we were being conditioned to become an Infantry unit. Fortunately, unlike the much stronger possibility towards the end of the Italian Campaign, the rumour was laid to rest on being told that the Regiment was going to Dunoon, Scotland, to practice sea-landings.
In early August, shortly after going to bed, I went into a delirium due to a facial infection serious enough for me to be taken immediately to Newmarket Hospital where an operation took place on my upper left jaw.
On awakening, the next day, my first conscious thought was that I would be missing all the excitement up in Scotland. However, it turned out that nothing was missed as only A and C Squadrons went, 'B' Squadron's trip having been cancelled at the the last minute.
During the stay in hospital, both the care and treatment given by the nurses could not have been better. There was one embarrassing moment though. As a naïve twenty-year old, when asked by a very attractive nurse "Do you want a bottle?" I replied "No thank you, not in the middle of August, I'm warm enough." Thereafter, whenever a nurse posed the same question to others, it gave rise to much ribald comment such as: "Don't ask Chester, he won't need one until next month!"
I returned to the Regiment just in time to join 'B' Squadron on its way to firing range near Brancaster Staithe on the Norfolk Coast. On arrival, we found the range, probably much to the horror of its members, to be on the Brancaster Golf Course. For HQF Troop the main purpose was to get aquainted with and to fire the 6-pdr guns on the newly received Mark III Churchills. The target, at about 600 yards, was a small building with a chimney stack, that probably at one time housed green-keeping equipment. The gunners, firing three shots in quick succession, hit the target every time.
Major Rew, who was in attendance, then offered a pound note for anyone hitting the chimney stack with just one shot. After all had failed the OC asked SSM Docksey to have a try. At first the SSM demurred saying, as he was rather portly, that once he got into the turret it would require the services of a Scammell to get him out. Nonetheless, he climbed in, aimed, then fired to successfully leave the OC £1 the poorer. When he climbed out, without assistance from the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) he was greeted with a rousing three cheers!
In September it became obvious, although not announced, that the mobilisation order had been rescinded. Leave recommenced and both day and 48-hour passes were freely given. Although there were many field exercises held, the atmosphere was more relaxed, so much so, in November, many of us were sent to help local farmers bring in their crops. Given the choice of harvesting sugar beets or potatoes I chose the latter. Although the work was hard they were great days made even more enjoyable as we received pay based upon the volume of potatoes harvested.
The nights were becoming colder as winter approached and many an evening was spent around the stoves, in the Nissen huts, cooking this that and the other. A popular place to go on a one-day pass was King's Lynn, just south of The Wash. On one occasion, Glyn Collard and I decided to go and see a film at the local cinema. Before going in we purchased bags of skinned chestnuts from a vendor who had a barrow outside. The idea was to keep them until getting back to camp where they could be roasted on the stove. Glyn , saying he was feeling hungry, ate the contents of his bag while watching the film. When the time came for my purchase to be roasted came a horrific discovery - the chestnuts were infested with creepy crawly things. Glyn excused himself and went away to upchuck!
Towards the month-end came the news that the Regiment had been ordered to relocate to a camp in Suffolk. So Dick Hayward and others drove their tanks to Thetford Station where they were loaded on a London & North Eastern Railway train Ipswich bound.
Stationed on the East Coast
On arriving at Wickham Market, some fifteen miles north-east of Ipswich, we were more than pleased to find ourselves billeted in regular army buildings (rather than in Nissen huts) located in the grounds of Glevering Hall. Shortly after settling in, extensive maintenance was ordered for all vehicles of 25th Army Tank Brigade of which we were part. Later, we found out why!
While Ipswich and Colchester were favourite places to go on a day pass, I twice seized the opportunity to visit my paternal grandmother who lived in Bushey, near Watford. While there I would also visit my aunts and uncles, particularly Uncle Frank. (Unless, dear reader, you are a cricket fan do not click on his name).
After a quiet celebration of Christmas, HQF Troop was treated to a rather wild display of how to enjoy Hogmanay by our man from Bonnie Scotland. Next day saw a flurry of activity with the arrival of some hundred or so officers and ORs among who was Lt. A. H. Kerr. On the day following, it was announced that the Regiment would be going overseas. So, once again, drivers went about doing the job for which they had accumulated much experience - loading the tanks on to flat-beds for transportation to West Coast ports.
A few days later the Regiment was paraded before the CO, Lt. Colonel D. Dawney. Without telling us whither we were bound, he did say that everyone would immediately be going on leave, except for non-Irish personnel who were to become part of the Home Detail. The assumption that we, of the Home Detail, would be staying in the UK, proved to be incorrect when we met with Lt. Kerr, after the parade was dismissed. Informing us that he was OC of the Detail, he then told us that our job was to load the tanks on to ships in Birkenhead, Cardiff and Swansea after which, if time permitted, there might be a few day's embarkation leave. The reason given, as to why we had been selected, was due to the travel time necessary for personnel to go on leave across the Irish Sea. Hopes that 'B' Squadron tanks would be loaded in Birkenhead, next to my home town Wallasey, were dashed on being told we were going to Cardiff.
At the loading berth, after ensuring that the ship's davits could handle the weight of a Churchill tank, loading commenced. As we were just four in number, we split into two pairs of a driver and guide. The first pair operated on the quay positioning the tanks so that slings could be affixed to shackles, one in front, two in the rear, by stevedores, so they could be lifted aboard. To provide a bed for the tanks, the ship's holds had been loaded with coal upon which large balks of timber were placed. After the slings were removed, each tank was manoevred to its allocated position by the second pair. This done each tank was then shackled to points on the ship's bulwarks, loading being completed in two days.
Shortly following the return to Wickham Market, came the information that we were being transferred to the Royal Artillery and that our berets would be replaced by forage caps. While no explanation was forthcoming, strict instructions were given that the change of unit was to be considered top secret. The general belief was that we were emulating the Heavy Machine Gun Corps of World War One, however, whatever the reason, this writer would now be wearing the fourth of his five cap badges!
Late on the evening of Wednesday, 20th January 1943 the entire Regiment, less Trooper Tommy Abbott, entrained for Liverpool. Conjecture (later proven wrong) was that Tommy, due to his being court-martialed, has decided to stay at his home in Éire.
Early next morning our train arrived at Pier Head Station alongside Liverpool's Floating Landing Stage.
<CENTER> </CENTER><CENTER></CENTER><CENTER></CENTER>After detraining we boarded a ship which I had seen so many times sailing, to and from Canada, on the River Mersey, the HMT Duchess of York - possibly she is the Duchess seen in the above pre-war photograph. On the 22nd she cast off the mooring ropes to drop anchor mid-river right opposite my home town Wallasey. The home on Egremont Promenade, where I had spent much of early boyhood, was clearly visible. (Only when constructing this site was it realised that there was a fellow Wallaseyan aboard - Trooper Norman William Moss, 'C' Squadron, who, sadly, was killed during the assault on the Hitler Line, Italy.)
Early next morning we were awakened to the throb of powerful engines, the Duchess of York was underway, after stopping briefly at the Bar Lightship to disembark the pilot it was out to the open waters of the Irish Sea. A few hours later most of the Regiment was on deck, as the ship sailed through the North Channel. On the port side could be seen the coast of Northern Ireland, home to so many and to the starboard, the hills of Kintyre.
Later, with the waters of the Atlantic under her keel, the Duchess of York took her place in a convoy that had assembled off the coast of Scotland, which began steaming its way to, as yet, an undisclosed destination.
Life on Board
After over two years of war, both the quantity and quality of food in Britain left much to be desired, so it was a delight to find that our ship had been re-victualed in Canada. Not only were the meals served reminiscent of those available pre-war, but also at the ship's canteens could be purchased such delights as bars of milk chocolate. When the ship sailed into stormy seas a few days later, how sorry were those of us who were not seasick to see so much good food go uneaten!
Throughout the voyage emergency drills became a fact of life. Fortunately, other than a short spell of depthcharging, never was the convoy in danger. In fact, other than two days of really stormy weather, our time at sea was quite uneventful.
For most of our free time, Jimmy Wiggins and I spent it at the ship's stern which, being of the cruiser type, was not far above the ocean. During the many hours we gazed upon the ship's wake, a member of the crew regularly stopped for a chat. During one of these conversations I happened to tell him that I used to keep a record of yellow-funneled CPR liners sailing upon the River Mersey - both the twin-stacked Duchesses and the triple-stacked Empresses. He asked was I aware that the aft funnel was a dummy? Receiving a negative answer, he told us to come along with him. Arriving at a small door, oddly enough not locked, he ushered us through to a space, of just a few feet, between an inner funnel and the outer one.
From the decks we could see an aircraft carrier on the starboard bow and, perhaps six or seven other ships. Ascending spiral steps, leading up to the funnel's top, we then saw how large the convoy actually was. Not only could we see thirty or more ships, mostly freighters, but also many destroyers steaming on both its flanks. Reluctantly, some two hours later, we descended to thank our friendly seaman and to promise not to tell anyone about this adventure until we had disembarked.
As we steamed steadily southwards, stronger became the belief that the Regiment was going to join the 1st. Army which had landed in Algeria the previous October - but as Artillery? Confirmation came when, about 0100 hours on New Year's Eve, we were awakened by an announcement over the loudspeakers that the ship would shortly be passing very close to the Rock of Gibraltar. So many crowded the ship's port side, to view the well-lit Rock, it was a wonder that she didn't take on a list!
It was back to bed (hammock), as the Duchess of York ploughed her way eastward on the Mediterranean Sea, with the only unknown remaining whether she would dock in Oran (now Wahran) or Algiers (now El Djazair). This question was resolved about midday, with a further announcement that the Duchess was expected to dock in Algiers, shortly after noon the next day with disembarkation taking place an hour or two later. Barring anything untoward happening, our voyage was about to end and soon, we and our fellow Regiments of 25th Army Tank Brigade, would be facing the enemy.