Oliver Perks' Wartime Blog 1 - 1940-41
Being called up from Oxford
When war was declared on the 3rd September 1939, I had completed a year as a law student at Exeter College, Oxford. At the time, the correct thing to do seemed to be to join the army so I went to a recruiting station and signed on for the Royal Artillery. In due course I was given a medical, as a result of which I was graded "B1" vision. I asked what this meant and they said it means active service at home or sedentary service abroad. I thought at the time that a bit of sedentary service abroad would suit me quite nicely! The college then enquired whether I was coming back up for the next term and I replied that there didn't seem to be any point as I expected to be called up quite soon. In fact I was mistaken. I wasn't called up eventually until the 15th August 1940 and the army had left it that long with the intention that people in my situation could go back to university and, in a year, get a War Degree but as they didn't tell us that they were going to do that, the time was really wasted.
Being best man for Clifford and Ruth
My father was Managing Director of the Bristol area of the United Yeast Company, the Distillers subsidiary. Lots of his chaps had gone so, to fill in time, I went to work as a clerk in the garage which was quite interesting. I forget when it was but fairly early in the summer, at lunchtime, I was told that my father wanted to see me. I wondered what terrible crime I had committed, or whatever, but when I went to see dad he said Clifford, my elder brother who had been suffering from meningitis and was still off sick, had been passed fit for service. He was going back to his regiment and he's getting married this afternoon and you're the best man! You'd better go home and get changed and tidied up, which I did and Clifford and Ruth were married.
August 1940: The 16th Field Training Regiment in Exeter (practices Woodbury Common; gun seized up; regimental marches)
Eventually, on the 15th August 1940 I was called to the 16th Field Training Regiment at Topsham Barracks, Exeter. It's a fine old artillery barracks but we, of course, were accommodated in huts on the square. We were in a Potential Officers Squad. Most of the other chaps in it had been boarders at public schools, and so we didn't find the food too bad. When the Battery Commander asked us all how we'd found things, to our surprise, we all said we thought that the food wasn't too bad whereas the ordinary intakes said it was terrible! We had several months there in training - restricted facilities because the regiment only had two guns for training. It had a 4.5 inch Howitzer with rubberised wheels and an eighteen pounder mark II similarly altered and we used to tear around Woodbury Common practicing with these. The eighteen pounder was an early pattern that was obsolete by the end of the First World War. There were two of them actually because one was kept at Exeter airport for defence against possible landings and, from time to time, it had to be brought back to our barracks to be serviced.
The Potential Officers Squad were always the people who got these jobs because we weren't popular and one Sunday morning we were all turned out to pull back the eighteen pounder - that is to say, put a rope through the barrel and pull the thing back - as it would for the buffer recuperator when the thing fired. Well, we couldn't shift it and the sergeant was quite vocal about our lack of capacity and the reasons for it but in the end they had to get a tractor to put this cable winch through the barrel and pull it back through mechanical means. Then came the dramatic moment when the sergeant stood by the pit shaft was through the end of the cable to pull the barrel back, when the winch was switched off and the sergeant stood by with a hammer to drive the pick shaft out, everybody waiting for the dramatic moment to see the gun run out. In fact nothing happened. Because the barrel was completely seized and if a German airplane had landed and it had been fired it would have fired one round and gone over backwards, probably injuring the gun detachment and we were vindicated for our lack of force in pulling it back.
We had various other interesting times there. We used to go into Exeter in the evening and drink beer and eat quantities at the Salvation Army and patronise a particular pub - the Ship, just off the Cathedral Square. On various occasions the regiment marched into Exeter for a church parade in the cathedral, usually led by a recently joined junior officer, and the junior officers who were sent to training regiments weren't always the brightest. On these occasions the Potential Officers Squad always provided the armed party, front and rear, which meant that we didn't go into the service. Anyway, on one occasion we were marching in and we were in the front armed party, and we realised the officer didn't quite know where he was meant to turn right. We were still rather awestruck by officers and didn't like to shout out to him, so we kept saying "Turn right Sir, turn right" but he didn't. He came on into the main crossroads of Exeter and then realised that he had to turn right and eventually took another turn whereupon the regiment marched in to the amazement of the regimental Sergeant Major who was waiting to guide us into the right place and of course we'd arrived from the wrong direction! Anyway, that was sorted out and the regiment all went in to the cathedral and the Potential Officers went into the hotel, whose name escapes me, in the square where we all had a coffee leaving our rifles parked somewhere until we had to take the regiment home again. That was a slightly worthwhile privilege.
November 1940: Posting to 123rd Officer Cadet Training Unit in Catterick
Eventually, after three months in Exeter, I was posted to the 123rd Officer Cadet Training Unit RA at Catterick in November 1940. We went up there and first thing was to go through the medical officer who looked at my pay book and said "I see you're B1". I said "Yes Sir". He said "No one passes out of here unless they're A1 - do you feel fit?" So I said "Yes Sir". Whereupon my pay book was altered, and from then for the rest of my military career I was "A1". This was rather ironical because after three not enjoyable and rather gruelling months at Catterick I was rejected as being at that time unsuitable for commissioning so that was unfortunate. Anyway, they were very nice about it. They told me to put up a tape and call myself Lance Bombardier and sent me on a weeks leave at the end of which I received a posting to Weston-super-Mare. They knew that I was from that part of the world so that was a nice touch. I thought, "Oh good! I'll be able to get home on leave every weekend."
February or March 1941: Posting to Weston-super-Mare.
2 April 1941: Inspection by HM King George VI on the Beach Lawns
So I reported to Weston-super-Mare in February or March 1941, having driven down in my fathers Humber which I thought wise to leave some little distance from Regimental Headquarters. I reported to regimental Sergeant Major who said "Of course, you know this mob's under embarkation orders don't you?" which was a bit of a blow. He said "They've all had their leave, I don't suppose you'll get any". I did in fact get another week but then we were very busy training and practicing and cleaning our equipment which came to a point when we were told that we were going to be inspected by His Majesty King George VI on the Beach Lawns. So we assembled on the Beach Lawns and in due course everybody came past. I didn't see the king myself at all because I was kneeling at number two on the gun facing to my front and you don't turn round to look. So I realised that the important party had passed behind us but I didn't actually see him although I have a photograph which appeared in the Weston Mercury taken at the time.
Anyway, very soon after that we were notified that we were off. We were to gather at the goods station for embarkation on the train and I was left with a small party to make sure that our billet was clean when we left. So we made our way down to the goods station and eventually entrained and as we had eight people in each compartment (they were quite separate compartments in those days) with all our kit - two kit bags, rifles, gas masks, all the lot - we stowed ourselves in. It was getting dark and we eventually went to sleep and some time passed and some of us woke up and there was discussion as to where we might be. Various people said I should think we are probably in Liverpool and others would add the usual adjectival additions to what they were saying, adding no we must be in Glasgow but, surprise surprise, we were still in Weston-super-Mare not having moved!
April-July 1941: Journey via Cape Town to Tewfik (Suez) on SS Empress of Asia (jugs of water, stokers, rough weather)
We eventually went up to Liverpool where we embarked on the Canadian Pacific liner "SS Empress of Asia" - a coal burning ship on her first trip as a troop ship*. We were on the mess deck of about fifty people which wasn't a great deal of fun. We then sailed up into the Clyde where we stayed for a few days and took in the scenery and then we were away. To begin with we slept in hammocks on the mess deck but after a bit, as we made our way south into the Atlantic, it became too hot and we used to book a space on the deck and put our hammocks down on the deck and sleep there until some early hour when the ships crew came round with hoses and hosed the deck down. It was fairly boring, we had long periods with our mates and colleagues chatting leaning over the rail.
The weather wasn't too bad although to begin with when we were in the North Atlantic the Canadian Pacific seemed to give us rather fatty foods when the weather was not very good and one didn't feel awfully hungry. But when we were getting fairly far south people used to think it'd be nice to have something cold to drink. Well the only cold water available was the condensation from the ships' refrigerators and, if you queued up with the jug from your mess and eventually fought your way to the front of the queue you could fill it with nice cold water. Well one occasion about six of us thought that would be nice, drew lots and a chap called Patterson was elected to take the jug and get in the queue and come back with a jug full of cold water which we were all looking forward to. Incidentally, we always wore gym shoes on the ship we didn't wear boots at all, and our mess deck was down a steep steel companionway of about ten steps. Anyway, after a long wait, Pat appeared at the top of the entrance to the mess deck, put one foot on the steel companionway, slipped and went straight to the bottom of the steps, dropping the jug of water and hurting his back. The jug, of course, was broken so we didn't get any cold water and he got very little sympathy because between us we had to pay for a new jug.
That was one of the more exciting periods on the journey. The ship was being stoked by chaps who knew nothing about stoking and didn't want to know anything so it was never level, it was always at the back of the convoy in the morning. Why we weren't torpedoed overnight we never did know but we spent all day trying to catch up and then would always lag back again. We were meant to go to Durban but the weather around the Cape was particularly bad. We were off the Cape and could see that we weren't making much progress. The weather was such that we were not allowed out on deck and eventually, to everybody's great relief, we turned back and went into Cape Town into the big harbour. Well, I was on deck when we came in and watched the anchor going out and the chain and, to my surprise, I saw the last link of the chain go out as well and fall down into the water of Table Bay whereupon they went in a bit further and anchored with the other anchor. But I imagine that it's not been worth anybody's while to recover that. It didn't really matter because on the next trip the "Empress of Asia" went to Singapore and was sunk by the Japs (5th February, 1942). We then carried on. Most of the stokers jumped ship at Cape Town so we were then stoked by a few army volunteers all the way up the east coast of Africa with it getting hotter and hotter and eventually arrived at Port Tewfik which is generally known as Suez and were very glad that the journey was over.
* SS Empress of Asia took troops to Suez via the Cape of Good Hope to participate in the North Africa campaign.