I’ve been reading with amusement Harry’s accounts of his joining the Army so I thought I would add to the hilarity by recounting my experiences on joining the Army. I volunteered first of all to join the Air Force and went up to their offices in Bristol Street in Birmingham. I was already a member of the Home Guard (Regtl No: 40752) and was experienced in Wireless Communication and could read the Morse Code at 20 words per minute and send at about 28 per minute. I was informed that for the trade I wanted to enter – Wireless Operator/AirGunner – that I was too short. They stuck an RAFVR badge in my jacket lapel and gave me a letter to take to the local Police Station in the town where I lived and they would give me some excercises and body building work to try and get up to the required height and weight. Three months of this and I still had not made the height so decided I would volunteer for the Army instead. This was in 1943. I went to the Recruiting Offices in Newport, South Wales and volunteered. I was there talked into volunteering for 7 and 5 (seven years in the active army and then 5 years in the reserve). Well, that was better than staying down in South Wales and becoming a CoalMiner. I also thought I had volunteered for the Highland Light Infantry which had been my Father’s regiment during the first world war. A few weeks later I got my call up papers and a train warrant and orders to report to Maryhill Barracks in Glasgow. So I imagined that my dream had come true and I really would be enrolled in the HLI. Alas and alack. At that time the Army had what was known as the General Service Corps and everyone who joined the Army was put in that for the first six weeks of training and then you were placed where they wanted you. Bakers into the Engineers, Bricklayers into the Catering Corps, Cooks into the RA, etc. So we were being trained to become fighters and got ready for warfare. Why we had to form fours and form threes, dress from the centre, port arms, etc, I could never understand, then form up and march to the Pay Table on a Friday and salute for the pittance – I recall it was 21 shillings per week – but you only got seven shillings because you had to make an allowance to your widowed mother, seven shillings a week into savings so you had some money in your pocket when you went on leave, plus there were stoppages for barrack damages, so you were nearly skint before a week had gone by. But at least there was a NAAFI Club where one could buy cheap cigarettes and get a bottle of beer. After a couple of weeks square bashing we were considered trained enough to be allowed out of barracks and catch a tram down to the centre of town. The Regular Staff who were supposed to train us were only allowed out of barracks if they were wearing kilts and they had to report to the Guard Room at the main gates for Short Arms Inspection. This consisted of the Orderly Sergeant, with a short stick in his hand, lifting the front of their kilts to ensure that they were not wearing anything under the kilt. They were also forbidden to use the top deck of the trams or buses. What a wonderful war we were having. But they did take us out on a route march once. Ten miles they said, and we were only used to marching around the barrack square. At least one good thing about the route march was that the Regimental Pipe band came out to join us on our return when we got to Milngavie (pronounced Mulguy). And that was the time I learnt how to appreciate the sound of the pipes. We were almost on our knees at the end of the march but the sound of those bagpipes playing all the Scots tunes, straightened our backs and put fresh steam into our boots and we marched like soldiers back into barracks. Apart from the General Service Corps I mentioned previously, the Army in their wisdom had also brought in the “County Connection” for blokes who were going to infantry regiments and after six weeks in Glasgow, I found myself on a train, once again heading back down to Monmouthshire and South Wales and, of course, to Brecon Barracks and the South Wales Infantry Training battalion. And silly old me had thought I would be joining the HLI! All because I had been living in Monmouthshire when I volunteered. So now I was in the South Wales Borderers and having to make the best of it. I still thought we would be training for warfare. You have, I expect, seen the way the Guards parade for the Queen’s birthday on the Horse Guards parade. After one month in Brecon Barracks we could have outperformed the Guards any day. Form Fours, form three ranks, from the centre reform fours, drill until you dropped. It would have frightened any German soldier out of his skin to see the wonderful way we could imitate the Guards at the Birthday parade.
End of instalment 1.
Sundays were particularly happy days, when the battalion had to form up on the square and march into the church hall for the usual Sunday service, followed by a regimental parade and forming of four and forming of threes, and by the centre right wheel. So this was how to train to fight the German Army!
But, every so often, they made us practice the ‘leopard crawl’ on the barrack square. That did come in useful later on in the Ardennes. Didn’t do much good for the toe-caps on our boots which we had spent days spit-polishing until you could see you face in the toe-caps. Then one day they put a notice on the Notice Board calling for volunteers for special duties. I know I had always been told – never volunteer for anything – but I was so fed up parading and forming fours, threes, etc, that I would have volunteered for anything. So off I went to the office. Very glad I did so because I was told that I would be sent for training as a Despatch Rider. And off I went up to Yorkshire and Richmond and Zetland Hall which was where they introduced us to the old BSA 500 motor-bycicle. We had to learn to ride this monster and used all the minor roads around that part of Yorkshire to practice on. There were about six or seven of us on the course amongst which was a young Jew boy. He was a great comic. You should have heard him recite off by heart Little Bo Peep. He was generally the last in a line of DRs when we rode out of Zetland Hall on practice and one day out riding we came across a small stream with a notice on which was an arrow and a notice saying “FORD”, cross here. Yes, you’ve guessed it. The poor old last rider in the column apparently never saw the notice and did not follow instructions and finished up in the middle of the stream. We spent hours taking the bikes to pieces and putting them back together and then one day we were issued with blindfolds and told to do the same in the dark. As the instructor said, one day you might be out riding at night and develop a fault so you need to be able to put things together in the dark. I never did in all my time as a DonR have this problem, thank heavens. About six weeks or so later we were all told we had passed and were issued with a driving licence and sent back to our battalions. So back to Brecon Barracks I went only to be told a couple of days later that I had been posted to a South Wales Border Regiment which was then training up in Ulverston up by the lakes in Lancashire. So off I went again on my travels up to the Lake District. Talk about training for warfare. I had now been to Glasgow, Brecon, Zetland Hall by Richmond in Yorkshire, back to Brecon and now had to go to Ulverston. If nothing else this kid who had been born in Bromyard in Herefordshire and then because his widowed mother met a bloke from South Wales and decided to move in with him to where he lived in Pengam in Monmouthshire, eventually over the hill to Blackwood, was fast becoming an expert on the geographical layout of Britain.
So now I was in Ulverston where we had to climb mountains and ford streams – on foot this time – and learn to fire machine guns and throw , oops, sorry, ‘lob’ hand grenades. Also strange was the fact that we had one bloke in our section ‘lobbing’ hand grenades who was left-handed and simply could not ‘lob’ a grenade like the rest of us and the first time he tried to use his right hand, he did not ‘lob’ the grenade out of the trench, (and these were 7 minute fused grenades) but hit the top of the trench and it fell back in. The sergeant instructor shouted “duck”, picked up the grenade and tossed it over the wall of the trench. Hand grenades exploding a couple of feet away from you, even over a brick walled trench. make a helluva ‘bang’. But why ‘lob’. Why not just throw the bleeding thing.
Anyway, after about a month, where the evenings were spent in the arms of a beautiful young Ulverston girl at the local dance hall, I got called into the Adjutant’s office and was told that I was being posted down to join the Training Battalion of the Welsh Guards at Sanderstead in Surrey to learn to drive an armoured car ready to join a Mechanised Armoured Reconnaisance Brigade which they were forming. So off on my travels again down, this time to London and onwards to the Sanderstead Race track in Surrey. The main force of the Training Battalion occupied the grandstands and outbuildings of the race track, whilst we, the squaddies sent for training were billeted in private houses down the road from the race track. Each of these were large residential houses which had been requisitioned by the Army and each one had three or four bedrooms plus good lounges and bathrooms, etc. Very cushy. Just one small problem. We were in what was called then “Doodle-bug alley” and those pestilential doodle-bugs were flying around day and night whilst I was there. But more of that in chapter 3.
Doodle-bugs flew over almost every hour at all times of the day and night. These houses were situated alongside a large avenue road, then there was a large field containing cows which bordered the main Southern Railway electric train route. One night a doodle-bug landed almost on top of the rail track and next morning when we formed up for parade, there were quite a few of these cows lying on their backs with their legs pointing to the sky. We were going to have to learn to drive the Daimler Dingo Armoured car, which was just a very small vehicle with an automatic gear-box with five forward and five reverse gears controlled by a small lever on the dashboard. But first one had to learn to drive and this was done in a Bedford 15cwt van. One man in the front with the instructor and four of us in the back.
Driving around Imber court area and the Richmond area. Always keeping an eye out for the odd doodle-bug which one day we encountered just outside Richmond. Fortunately for us but unfortunately for the inhabitants of a street up to our left, it made a mess of about four houses and blew us across the road. Happy days. Unfortunately, much worse was to come. Just before I went down to Sanderstead a doodle-bug had fallen on the Welsh Guards Chapel in Whitehall and 196 squaddies and officers were killed. In August, the Training Bn decided to hold a Sports day down in Imber Court Sports field. Practically everyone from the Battalion went down in trucks and the sports unfolded. Also there was the Regimental band at the top end of the Sports field. There was a large wooden pavilion in which I found a seat in order to watch. Halfway through the gathering, the usual pestilential doodle-bug made its entrance in the skies and this one suddenly cut it’s engine and was diving down heading straight for the pavilion. Those of us in the pavilion immediately ‘jumped ship’ and headed for the middle of the field. It’s engine then started again and looking up we could now see that it was heading straight for us. A smart about turn and head back to the pavilion where at least we could shelter beneath it but the thing fell straight onto the band and I was hit in the back by the blast and did in fact find myself propelled up to and underneath the pavilion. An absolute massacre. 86 members of the unit were killed that afternoon and I never did know the number of wounded. But thank heaven I was still all in one piece. I saw things that afternoon that even today I can still remember and shudder. Those of us who could still walk were told to make our way back to our billets. And we were given the following day off to recover.
These houses I have mentioned as our billets had a long drive from the road and up the sides of the drive had been constructed inspection pits so we could get underneath the trucks and vehicles we had to learn how to maintain as well as drive. They were, of course, containing of water and oil if and when the rain fell. One morning I was called into the Adjutant’s office and told to report to the Transport Office and pick up a PSU and drive to Paddington in London and pick up a couple of officers and bring them back to the unit. By this time, of course, I was considered able to drive quite a few different types of vehicles but a PSU? An Austin with the normal four forward gears and one reverse. I had never driven one of those before but nothing tried nothing gained, so off I went, signed for the PSU and then had to find my way to Paddington. I had a road map but after all the bombing that had taken place in the city with roads blocked by rubble from fallen houses, boy, did I have problems in finding the rail station in Paddington. Find it I did only to get a severe bollocking from the two officers I had to pick up for being half an hour late. But we made it back to Sanderstead. One afternoon, training over for the day, I was upstairs in my billet having a bath when there came a shout “Doodle-bug” on its way, so I grabbed a towel and rushed downstairs onto the drive and dived into one of the inspection pits. There was a loud explosion from the race-track and the windows all shattered in the house. I was by now covered in dirt and oil from the inspection pit so decided to go back up and finish my bath. Except that the bathroom was no longer there and the bath was hanging by the water pipes down the side wall.
Training over, and now a qualified driver of a Daimler Dingo armoured car and operator of a 22 wireless set which was mounted inside, I was given a piece of paper which counted as a driving licence, given a railway ticket from Paddington to Newport in South Wales and told I could have ten days leave. I was also driven to Paddington in a PSU. What a wonderful war I was having.
So here I was back home in Blackwood, Monmouthshire on a well-earned ten days leave. Dancing every night. Now, Blackwood was situated in the Rhymney River valley. South Wales and Monmouthshire (which then was still considered to be in England although adhering very closely to the laws of Wales such as no pubs open on a Sunday, drinking only allowed in private clubs like the British Legion and Working Men’s clubs where one had to be a member to get in on a Sunday) so on a Sunday there was an exodus of the inhabitants of Monmouthshire over to the English border counties of the males with their drinking partners. All the valleys in South Wales had small towns and villages and each one had its own coalpit and where there was a coalpit there you would find the Miner’s Welfare Club and Institute and each of these had their own Hall which generally consisted of a downstairs billiard hall and a first floor where there was a small theatre which was converted to a dance hall with a bar on at least one night of the week. So one spent the week going from town to town and village to village to go dancing. And these villages and towns had some strange names. Apart from Blackwood (which in Welsh was Coed Dion) there was Pontllanfraith, Argoed, Cwmfellinfach, Ystrad Mynach, Pengam, Bargoed, Aberbargoed, Risca, Oakdale, Ebbw Vale, New Tredegar, Merthyr and Tredegar, Ynysddu and so on.
And so the first week went by. After seven days a knock on our front door and when I opened it there stood a very tall policeman. “Are you by any chance, Thomas Harry Southgate, of the South Wales Borderers regiment?” “Yes”, I replied. “Then you are under arrest as AWOL from your regiment and I must ask you to accompany me to the Police Station” came the shock reply. “Hang about a bit’ said I, ‘I’m on ten days leave and I have a pass here to prove it!” But, to no avail. I had to accompany him down to the local police station where I was interviewed by a Police Inspector. I showed him my pass and my railway tickets and he made a couple of phone calls and eventually the situation was cleared up and back home I went. Next day back at the front door was the same policeman from the day before. “I’ve got some bad news for you Thomas’ he said and at that moment a telegraph boy called at the house and handed me a telegram. It was from the War Office to tell me that my leave was cancelled in two days time and I was to report to some transit camp in Dover. “That’s what I’ve come to tell you” said the copper. “You’ve got to come with me to the police station to get a railway warrant for your trip to Dover”. So a couple of days later I caught a train and eventually arrived in Dover where I found some Military Police and found my way to the Transit Camp. Next morning up in front of the Adjutant I went and he said ‘what on earth are you doing here?’ So I spent a couple of days hanging around the camp and then back to the Adjutant’s office. “I’m finally getting rid of you, Pte Southgate. I’ve done some searching around and find that you are being transferred to the Monmouthshire Regiment. Tomorrow you will catch a ferry to Calais in France to the Transit camp there and they will send you on your merry way”. So finally, I would be seeing some action in the not too distant future. Over to Calais the next day and into a transit camp there. From there they sent me to Louvain in Belgium to a Transit camp there. From there they sent me to another transit camp in Bruges. From there they sent me to another transit camp in Weert in Holland from where I was picked up by a truck from the 2nd Battalion Monmouthshire Regiment and taken to a farmhouse in Beegden which was on a bluff overlooking the River Maas. Found a place to sleep and next day reported to the Adjutant. Here I was told I would be serving with ‘D’ company and should report immediately to the Major in charge of that company. Did soand was told to go an find a place to sleep and store my kitbag. My first experience of getting close to the enemy. From the garden at the back of the large barn in which D company was based you could look down to the river Maas. It came down from Venlo and Roermond and formed a small loop opposite out location. In the loop there was a small island on which we had established a forward post. On the opposite side of the river on a bluff similar to ours as another large farmhouse. This was occupied by the Germans. I had the shock of my life to be able to see real-life German soldiers – the enemy – walking about in the open without bothering about us. Seemed to be something of a stalemate. We could even see them go to their cookhouse and get their food in their messtins and take it back to the barn in which they were based. What a strange way to conduct a blinking war. A couple of nights after my arrival I was placed on guard duty and really shamed myself. I was patrolling up and down the land around our area when all of a sudden there started up the most incredible artillery barrage one could imagine. The noise was incredible with moaning millies (the rockets we used) and artillery mixed together. It sounded like all the devils from hell were rushing over my head. It must have been on the same sort of scale of El Alamein. Hell, I was scared. Apparently they were firing on a section of enemy territory around the area of Venlo in preparation for a new push. I was only 19, fresh out of training in the UK and had never been on any manoeuvres where they used ammunition and artillery so I was truly scared. I ran back to the guard room and told the sergeant I could not go on. I was placed on a charge and put in front of the Major next morning. I had to tell him that I had been taken completely by surprise and had never in my life seen or heard anything like it before. He was sympathetic and just gave me a reprimand and told me that in a few days I would get used to this kind of life. But did I get the mickey taken out of me by the rest of the platoon. I was the regimental signaller in the Company and one of my duties was to ensure that the telephone line down to the forward observation post on the small island in the loop of the River Maas was kept in good working order. So one afternoon I made my wary way down towards the island checking the wires as I went. There was a long field just before the island and I crept down alongside the hedge checking the wires when all of a sudden, on the opposite side of the field there came an explosion. The Germans had evidently caught sight of me in the field and lobbed over half a dozen small mortar bombs. Luckily only the first one exploded the other five just swooshed into the ground but I was not going to wait and see what else was going to happen. I must have broken the 100 yards sprint record that afternoon as I rushed to where our forward troops were based on the island. A nice hot cup of tea restored my aching nerves. But now I was becoming used to life on the static front line and that afternoon really stood me in good stead later on in the Ardennes. I even got used to doing the usual guard duties at night without wanting to use the loo when the firing started up again. This was in October 1944 and after a month or so we got told that we would be moving. The German Army had started a new offensive down in Belgium in an effort to cut the lines across to Antwerp, so in December we were move lock stock and barrel down to the city of Louvain in order to bolster the troops already in the area preparing to rebuff the Germans if they broke through the American lines. So we spent a wonderful Christmas in the city of Louvain based in a large school on the edge of the St Jaccobs Platz in the centre of town. We even had the usual Christmas dinner served by the officers and sergants. Across the square from our school barracks there was a large cafe/bar the owner of which was a Mr Roberts who had a very beautiful daughter called Titine. She could really dance very well so on the nights on which I was not on some duty I would be in the bar dancing the hours away with the wonderful Titine. All good things must come to an end and shortly after the festivities we were packing up again to move down into the Ardennes. If I remember correctly we moved out of Louvain on the First of January. In trucks on our way down to our next home somewhere in the Ardennes. As we were driving along one road taking us to a small village, a convoy of Americans passed us on their way out and one of them called out, ‘Hope you have a happy new year. They’ve thrown everything at us except the kitchen sink so we’re off for a break. Have a nice time Lymies’.