Barrington's memories of the start of WW2
Evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk leaving behind all their guns, vehicles and heavy equipment, meant that an invasion of England was imminent. The ill-equipped and depleted forces defending the UK were not to be compared with the German forces now triumphant in France.
Dunkirk, despite skillful propaganda, had been a disaster of the first magnitude. Those days of the summer of 1940, June to September, were really epic. Were it not for the RAF squadrons (fortunately not squandered in France) who fought the Battle of Britain and so denied the Germans the air supremacy which they deemed necessary for their invasion of Britain (code-named “Sea Lion”), then we may well have faced invasion of our mainland.
We fortified the area of the gun position and constructed a command post dugout approximately two metres deep, the whole area being covered by razor sharp wire and slit trenches offering covering fire. Here I remained until I was called to serve in a newly formed Field Regiment of Divisional Artillery.
This S.E. corner of Kent, owing to its close proximity to France, the constant air raids and its general shabbiness, reflected the atmosphere of war. It is undoubtedly the coldest part of the British Isles and the winter of 1940/41 was very severe. The beach was divided into sectors by map reference and each sector numbered and duly recorded as a numbered target. I like to think that the shells from these twelve inch guns would have certainly created severe obstacles to any landing craft.
We did have two visits from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, always a great boost to morale. On one of these he arrived, complete with box hat and cigar, in an open car. He spoke to the men, strode towards the gun and demanded it should be fired, which we did!
By now there were two further batteries of these guns stationed at Eythorne and Tilmanstone (the S.E. Kent Railway). The area was defended by an Army corps, 5th Corps, and a very active Home Guard. The rear headquarters for 2nd Super Heavy Regiment now commanding these railway batteries was in Canterbury and I well remember returning one evening to the battery and being challenged very “actively” by one such Home Guard unit who we alleged to be trigger-happy.
The threat of invasion was very real and didn’t in fact pass until late in 1940. During that period the activity within the Super Heavy Regiment was very high manning Observation Posts (OPs) on the exposed cliff tops for twenty-four hours a day, training the troops in small arms, particularly Lewis gun firing. Of course, the whole time was overshadowed by a realistic atmosphere of war with the Battle of Britain being fought out overhead. On our not infrequent visits to Canterbury to enjoy a meal at the Chaucer Hotel, we would meet the pilots stationed at Manstone aerodrome who were very actively engaged and whose aerodrome was badly shot up by the Luftwaffer. These poor chaps were in fact living from day to day. On a domestic note, it’s worth recalling that, in January 1941, on a trip into Canterbury to collect the pay for the Battery, I availed myself of the opportunity to purchase a hall barometer, duly inscribed for my parents 25th wedding anniversary, which I arranged to be posted back to Newport and which is presently in the hall here in my bungalow in Mumbles.
It is strange how few people now realise by what a very narrow margin we in this country avoided defeat in the war. Before the war could possibly end the German army had to be beaten in the field. The commanders at top level, particularly the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke and General Sir Bernard Pagett, our Commander in Chief Home Forces, were only too aware of what a well trained and hardened army the Germans had. They rightly insisted, therefore, on the elimination from active commands here at home of all officers whose battle worthiness was in the slightest doubt and rigorous training was insisted upon down to the lowest levels. Montgomery ordered that all ranks did P.T. every morning at 6.30am and pay parades were cancelled. Instead a map reference was given and men had to turn up in full kit plus an 8lb pack on their back or they would miss it. Officers were not excluded either or their pay would not be in the bank next month! This was his way of hardening the troops.
I well remember one morning, as a junior subaltern taking P.T. in the station yard at Shepherdswell in shorts and singlet, when a staff car pulled up and an officer with a red band on his hat, not recognised immediately by me, approached and ordered me to stand the men at ease. He then proceeded to ask me the whereabouts of the Commanding Officer. To my embarrassment, he was conducted to the bungalow in the village that acted as our Mess where, unfortunately, most of the Battery Officers had not yet even breakfasted. The outcome was that we lost our Battery Commander!
The first Commander at home here to insist on this strict training exposed to the elements was in fact General Montgomery himself. As Commander of 5th Corps, his exercises in the winter of 1940/41 kept all the troops out in the open with snow lying on the ground and hard frosts for ten day periods at a stretch. This set the tone for the subsequent training for the whole of the British army in Great Britain for several years prior to the eventual invasion of Europe in 1944.
It was while taking part in one of these prolonged exercises in such extreme conditions that I developed a heavy cold and severe throat. The Medical Officer advised removal of my tonsils, so off I went to Leeds Castle in Kent which was being used as a Military Hospital at the time. Leeds Castle is a beautiful moated castle, famous for its black swans which had been recently presented to Churchill.
I felt somewhat humiliated and a bit of a fraud because the hospital was full of wounded personnel from Dunkirk. In my defence, however, the tonsillectomy went wrong and I developed septicaemia so that my stay at Leeds Castle was extended to some six weeks.
It was quite eerie at night because the Germans had switched their bombing offensive from our air fields to London. It was very unnerving to hear them passing over Leeds Castle on their way to set alight London docks and the area around St Pauls.
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