Memories of War Years 1939-45

Little did I realise that I would be involved in the army when war broke out in 1939. I was attending Hatherleigh Central School in Newport at the time and as a young lad did not really understand what the fuss was all about, when it was announced that we had declared war on Germany, but I was soon to find out.

It affected my education a great deal, because soon after the announcement was made by the authorities that only half of the schoolchildren would be in school at one time, in case a bomb was dropped. Half the schoolchildren went in the mornings and the other half went in the afternoons. If the sirens were sounded during the time we were in school we had already rehearsed to evacuate the school to be boarded with families in the Christchurch /Gibbs road Area. There was no panicking, just an orderly march to our allocated address. Hatherleigh was a good school, our headmaster Mr.Hando, (Nobby) when we talked about him in the school yard, was very strict, but also fair. He compiled a school song which we sang each morning. “As we climb the hill to Hatherleigh in the sweet fresh morning air. The birds sing around us merrily, and the sun the on the Severn shines fair”. I do not remember the lines that followed but ex members of the school maybe able to add the words that followed.

Unfortunately for me I did not complete my education. When I reached the age of fourteen, half way through my third year at Hatherleigh I was released for a job as a junior on the Great Western Railway in The District Goods Managers Office, in High Street. Mr.Hando was not pleased about this and but did not prevent me from leaving. During my interview I made sure that my prefects badge was in full view. Being the youngest but one of eight children and coming from a poor family my parents wanted me to contribute to my upbringing. I succeeded to get the job and remained there until my call-up in 1944. Thank goodness this does not happen today..

How well I remember the air raid sirens going off during the war and everyone rushing to the air raid shelters, sitting in the cold damp Anderson shelter listening to the German bombers passing overhead. The ack- ack- guns situated around the town followed the searchlights scanning the sky for the enemy aircraft and when the plane was spotted they opened fire with a salvo of shells, which made a tremendous noise. This happened on many occasions, they were on there way to drop bombs elsewhere up country. After many sleepless nights and having to go work the next morning I decided that enough was enough and I would stay in bed whatever happened. Until the night that Newport was about to get its share of the bombings. A land mine was dropped in Eveswell Street which was a mile from where I lived. The blast from this was felt all over the town and this certainly did the trick of getting me out of bed, I think I would have broken all records at the time to get from bed to shelter.

There were many broken windows in the area and damaged buildings surrounding Eveswell but where the land mine dropped many houses were destroyed, and lives lost. They were obviously aiming for the railway sidings, and the ammunitions factory nearby. As I passed the top of the street on my way to work the next morning the rescue services were still busy carrying out their duties. Despite of all the sad events during this time life carried on as normal.

During the years prior my call up for service in the army, and as I had been deprived of a full education I attended Newport Technical College to further my education. I also joined the 210 1st. Mon Air Training Corp, we did our training in the Secondary School next to St. Mary’s church on Stow Hill.
I became proficient in the Morse Code. This enabled me to be selected for training as a wireless operator in the Royal Artillery when I was called up for the forces in 1944. I was hoping to go into The Royal Air Force but the army’s needs were greater at that time. Some of our time was also spent doing marching drill around the cycle track at Newport Rugby grounds every Sunday morning. Afterwards we played football in front of the rugby posts across the width of the field, which was great fun. Most of the lads of my age were very keen to join up as it was near the end of hostilities in Europe and it was likely that we would be needed for the war against the Japanese in Burma.

Our basic training was carried out at the Shorncliffe barracks near Folkstone in Kent, this turned out to be quite a shock to the system. We had travelled over night to the barracks and were quite tired when we arrived, several hundred of us. Our tormentors for the next six weeks were there to meet us. They marched us to the camp several miles from the railway station, what a bedraggled lot we were, but not for long. The first day we started with a breakfast. Then we went through a series of interviews and medical check-ups which included inoculations etc .and then being kitted out with army uniform, rifle, steel helmet, gas mask, kit bags, small pack, large pack, and everything needed for a soldier. All this equipment was carried to our billet for the next six weeks.
On arrival at the Nissen type building we were greeted by our instructor sergeant, sat at a table near the bottom of the room. The billet was in one big mess bare wooden beds strewn all over the place. The sergeant took one look at us and said what a rabble we were, but he added not for long. The first thing I want you to do is get yourselves a bed and then follow me. We had to then proceed to fill our palliasses with straw. After that we were ordered to clean our rifles before anything was the start of a very arduous six weeks, but only the beginning of the very intensive training to follow. During our basic training we were taught to fire a rifle, throw hand grenades, and to handle a sten gun and a bren gun. We did plenty of marching and rifle drill in competition with the rest of the platoons in the barracks. Also a lot of the time in the evening was spent polishing the brasses on our uniforms and preparing for the next days training, no time for any social activities, just kept grinding on. We were a mixed bunch of lads coming from all walks of life, but it did not take long for most of us to settle in to the rigid routines set up by our instructors. On completion of the six weeks basic training we felt completely kn....ed but, very fit at the same time. It felt as if were suddenly changed form boys to men. During this time we also had to be tested for all types of skills, but only a few were selected to go into to the technical regiments of the army. Most of the men had no option but to be drafted to the infantry. Fortunately for me I was posted to a Royal Artillery Signal unit in Yorkshire.

In Yorkshire I joined the 39th. Royal Artillery Training Regiment. We were being trained for anticipated action against the Japanese in Burma. First of all was the six weeks driving instructions. We did school work in the mornings being taught how to maintain the wireless vehicles, and then in afternoons starting with simple driving through countryside and then the final week driving over rough terrain and up and down steep quarries, followed by night driving. Those men who passed the driving course were then transferred to the wireless section of the regiment. I found this very interesting, for this is where my skill with Morse code came in very useful. After twelve weeks of learning how to use procedures by speech and Morse on wireless sets we eventually passed out as qualified Driver/Wireless operators ready for the Far East.

Submitted to this site by John Beal.