WW II, a British focus  


The story continues, 1940 1941

Our Brigade training establishment was in Thorpe Bay near Southend in Essex. The army had taken over the buildings of a small private school. The young girl students had been evacuated along with the entire civilian population of the area. At the time, a few weeks before Dunkirk, a two-mile strip of land along the coast was cleared and defensive positions erected to repel the expected German invasion. Thorpe Bay was a ghost town, only the railway station operated and a newsagents..

When the course started everything was terribly secret and for the first two weeks we only learnt the basic rules of electricity and electronics. At that stage there was no indication of the type of equipment we would be operating and we began to wonder whether we would have to repair it as well.

Finally our big day arrived, most of us had passed the initial test. Behind closed doors and curtained windows the Commanding Officer explained that we were to be trained as operators on the top secret piece of equipment known as GL Mk1 (Gun Laying). The very first radio location gear for Heavy A.A. The word RADAR didn't come into use for several years and is formed from the words Radio Direction And Range.

We began extensive instruction in the classroom and on the actual equipment, which was sited on a nearby field. Here are a few facts about the set to give you a better idea of the work we had to do. There were three parts, the Transmitter (Tx), the Receiver (Rx) and a diesel generator to supply electrical power. It's worth mentioning that the power unit, made by Lister, was very reliable, it was hand cranked and never let us down even in the most severe winter weather. The other two parts were housed inside wooden cabins on wheels, about eight feet by six, and fitted with stabilizing jacks to maintain a level base.

The main part of the transmitter consisted of four large triode valves (about twelve inches high), which were air-cooled. During operation these created a great deal of heat and needed a powerful blower motor to maintain an adequate air flow over them. As well as noise there was vibration to get used to and I remember the first day we went inside for a lesson. The sergeant instructor had a good look at his new class and selected a chap; I'll call him Gunner Smith. He kept asking the lad whether he was ok, "Radio energy can do funny things to the human body" he told us. A little later, when Smith was actually leaning against the metal case of the equipment, the instructor asked, "Do you feel a sort of tingling sensation?" Smith admitted that he did feel something. This was the answer our instructor had been expecting, he'd got a victim. "Take this note to the stores and collect a Protector from the Quartermaster".

A soldier doesn't question an order and Smith hurried away to carry out the instruction. The storeman read the note and got a large box from the top shelf and said, "Take this back to your instructor and don't open it on the way".

When he rejoined the squad the sergeant opened the box and lifted out a pair of tin pants with an earth lead attached. The whole thing was a huge joke, including the fact that Smith had to wear the 'Protector' for the rest of the lesson. Even in those days it was said that high frequency radio waves could sterilize a man, but it has never had any effect on me.

There were no baths in the school and, once a week, we had to march to Southend to use the Salt Water Baths. Before the war people paid quite a lot of money for this facility, the water is supposed to help rheumatic sufferers. It was really a pleasant afternoon out for us, marching along the sea front and looking down on the barbed wire and tank traps being set up on the beach, a preparations, which thankfully, were never needed. At the baths we were issued with a small bar of special soap to use with the hot salt water. We were never really clean and came away quite sticky with salt drying on our skin, but it was better than nothing.

How did we get our clothes washed? Every unit had an arrangement with a local laundry and we were issued with a printed label and a piece of string. The items to be washed were ticked off, one shirt, one vest, one pair of socks, one towel, etc., and the bundle tied and handed into the stores. After a week or so it would be returned, clean, but quite often mixed with someone else's laundry. Occasionally the girls who did the work sent little notes inviting the recipient to meet them on a blind date.

In May 1940, when I had just started my course, the German army moved rapidly through the low countries into France and 300,000 British and Allied troops came back to England from Dunkirk. The Home Guard was formed and everybody got ready to repel the invader. All troops, stationed near the south coast, were issued with a triangular piece of bright yellow silk. It had tying tapes at the three corners and we were supposed to wear it across the shoulders of our battledress so that we could be recognized as friendly. One wonders what an enemy sniper would have thought if we had actually worn these distinctive pieces of material.

We were told how to blow up the radar and each section of the equipment had fourteen pounds of guncotton and a detonator, ready for us to use. All our notebooks and other documents were locked away at night and an officer detailed to destroy them if a particular codeword was phoned through. During air raids we sheltered in slit trenches and this occurred more often as the Battle of Britain developed.

Located, as we were, near the mouth of the River Thames, gave us a good view of dog-fights between our fighters and enemy aircraft trying to get through to London. At night searchlights swept the sky above and quite often illuminated a raider in a triangle of beams. When this happened AA guns in Essex and Kent would open up and on one occasion a formation of three bombers flew straight into a barrage of shells. One of the bombers crashed near us and we had to mount guard over the wreckage and over the body of a German airman who died because his parachute never opened properly.

In July 1940 I reported special sick, a rash had appeared on my chest during the morning and the office thought I had better see a medical officer. Normal sick parade is always early in the morning and I was too late to join it. Special sick meant that I had to go to the Regimental Medical Post (RMP) rather than see the doctor when he came to the site. Leaving most of my kit in store and carrying what is known as 'small kit' I travelled, by truck, to a house, which had been requisitioned for the medics to use. After having a quick look at me the MO said that I should be put to bed in a small room, by myself. I didn't feel ill and was able to eat the supper that was provided.

During the evening the MO came back with two other doctors. Each made a detailed examination before holding a whispered conference in the corner of the room. Next morning an even larger number of medics came to see me, seven in all, various ranks including at least one colonel. By this time I was getting really scared, what was the matter with me? These experts didn't seem to have the answer. They left and about an hour later two of them returned with a white-coated civilian.

They've come to take me away! I thought. The civilian turned out to be another doctor and he took one look and declared, "It's a clear case of Scarlet Fever, I'll admit him to my hospital straight away". To this day I do not think that I had anything more dangerous than a heat rash but that particular civilian doctor was determined to show that he knew more than the military types who had hovered around my bed trying to make up their minds.

Incidentally, in 1945, during the voyage home from India, I got to know a sergeant from the RAMC and he told me that he was stationed in Essex at the time and that I had given the medics a real head ache, my rash of rose-coloured spots was one of the symptoms of Typhoid Fever. At last I could have a good laugh about it and understand why, even today, doctors can be wrong.

An army ambulance took me to a large hospital in Westcliff-on-Sea. I was surprised to find that all the patients had been evacuated and the building prepared to treat air raid casualties. The hospital was still fully staffed and waiting for someone, like me, to look after. I was put into a small ward and given VIP treatment. Nothing was too much trouble for them. The doctor realized that I wasn't really ill and thought of me as a useful guinea pig to keep the nursing staff happy while they waited for casualties to arrive.

The meals were excellent. Matron and several sisters called for a few words each day and three nurses were directly responsible for my care. During my stay there were several air raid alerts and, as I was 'too ill' to be moved to an underground shelter, a mattress was put on the floor under another bed for me to lie down on. Several additional mattresses were placed on top of the bed to absorb blast and debris that might have fallen during a raid.

Naturally I accepted all this special attention, what else could a seventeen-year-old squaddie be expected to do? I probably hold the record for being the only patient in a large hospital. Unfortunately all good things come to an end and after seven days of luxurious living I also had to be evacuated. Another ride in the back of an ambulance, this time finishing in a hospital at Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire. Once again messages had been confused, they were expecting a military casualty but got me instead.

Two more weeks in a private room at the hospital receiving special treatment, anyway I survived and returned to Thorpe Bay and the radar course. Even though I had lost several weeks training I managed to pass the final exam and qualified as a B3 Operator Fire Control (OFC). As a tradesman my pay went up by sixpence a day and as I had already passed the army proficiency test my new pay rate was twenty-one shillings per week (£1.05).

By this time German bombing raids on London were intensive and I remember going out on the evening of September 7th, the night when the London docks were targeted. The famous dome of St.Paul's Cathedral appeared as a silhouette against the red glow from the fires. We wandered through the streets while bombs and shrapnel fell on the city, what fools we were. We dropped to the ground when the high-pitched scream of a bomb indicated that it was going to land very near. Shop windows shattered and showered us with pieces of glass. In general, Londoners carried on with their jobs regardless of the risk involved, "If it's got my name on it, well that's it", was their way of referring to the bombing.

Having completed the Radar course and qualified as an Operator Fire Control [OFC], tradesman class B3, I was sent to a HAA gun site at Buckles Farm, South Ockendon in Essex. Radar operators were only attached to other units, coming under direct control from Brigade HQ. A high degree of security and mystique surrounded the type of work that we did. Other members of the unit, including officers, were not allowed into the equipment and we were housed in separate quarters. Even in the dining room we tended to sit together and it wasn't long before we were considered 'very odd'. It never worried us, far from it, no guard duties or fatigues that was for 'ordinary' gunners.

There were thirteen of us in the radar section, two sergeants, a bombardier and ten gunners. One of the sergeants was an EFC [Electrician Fire Control] who repaired the equipment; this was before the creation of REME. The group was split into three crews, working an eight-hour shift pattern.

Heavy AA gun sites had to be ready for action at all times, and were, except for a short period for maintenance and adjustments normally carried out during the morning. Sites cooperated so that the overall cover remained complete at all times.

Summer turned to autumn and enemy raiders changed their tactics, moving from daylight to the hours of darkness. We sometimes remained on duty in the equipment all night. Using the information provided by us the men on the guns had a very busy time firing at targets in the sky. It was not uncommon for a HAA gun site to fire several hundred rounds of ammunition during a night.

On November 13th 1940 I was detailed for maintenance duty and the period started at ten in the morning. I can't remember why, but I left the hut shortly after the others and, as was customary in the circumstances, was left with the dirty job cleaning and refuelling the diesel generator.

I was beginning to top up the large fuel tank when I heard the familiar whistle of bombs followed by three explosions. Pieces of shrapnel pattered on the canvas cover of the generator. I dropped the gerry-can and rushed out to see what was happening. Beside the transmitter I found another member of the team crawling out of a ditch, which ran beside the field. "Are you all right?" I asked and he replied that he thought so. Later a piece of shrapnel had to be removed from his backside, I presume that this section of his anatomy was nearest to the sky during the raid.

I covered the hundred yards from the generator to the other piece of equipment in record time and found the third member of our crew hanging out of the door and looking in a bad way. I had a quick word, he was still conscious, before running to the command post where I knew that a stretcher and first aid gear was kept.

A party of us carried the casualty across the field to the camp entrance where a truck was waiting to take him to a nearby civilian hospital.

There were no other casualties on the site but during the rest of the day we heard about various strange happenings. Blast had blown the cook across his kitchen and causing him to leave his false teeth in the sink where he had been working. Another lad was sitting in a toilet when the door fell in and the ceiling collapsed around him.

Everyone on the gun site volunteered to give blood. Unfortunately the casualty never recovered from his wounds and died on 8th December 1940.

How a sneak raider could have crossed the coast without being detected we will never know. No warning had been received. I have now been able to see a transcript of the official 'War Dairy' entry written by a site officer on 13th November 1940 and here it is.

"Sky overcast, rain at intervals. Sky bright and clear, good visibility. A few scattered raids reported during the day. At 1026hrs a twin-engine bomber flying low, but under cover of cloud, dropped 3 HE Bombs on the gun site. One bomb fell within 25 yards of the GL station, seriously wounding No.878168 Gunner/OFC Greenfield. Splinters penetrated the wall of the GL component."

In the main this has backed up my memory of the incident but one or two corrections are in order. The gun site was, at the time manned by 195 Battery/61st HAA Regiment RA, TA. I am always reminded that, on 13th November 1940, fate stepped in and saved my life. Just a few minutes made all the difference.


Within a few days of the enemy action we were ordered to take the equipment out of action and transport it, with the detachment, to a gun site outside the town of Long Eaton in Derbyshire. The huts had not been completed and, at the start, we were billeted, in an old factory, in the town itself. We had a lot of fun sliding down a fireman's escape pole, which ran through each floor from the top of the building. Duty crews had to march to the site and man the guns and equipment while off duty men could meet local people, in particular the ones that used our favourite pub, the Blue Bell Inn, which served a very good local brew.

In December the ladies of the town opened a canteen for us and one of the helpers invited me to her home for Christmas and I was able, from then on, to spend a lot of my off-duty time at their house.

Back in the camp our small group of radar operators got down to making our hut as comfortable as possible. We planted a small garden in the front and, using stones, set out the Artillery badge on one side of the path and a hand with lightning flashes on the other (the badge of army signallers, we were never allocated an arm badge for OFC's).

On 1st April 1941 1 changed my service contract from territorial to regular army, seven years with the colours and five on the reserve. I was still a gunner and got an increase of sixpence a day for signing on the dotted line. When the war ended my TA service from August 1939 to the change over was taken into consideration and counted as part of my seven years with the colours.

Shortly after becoming a regular soldier I was posted to another gun site, this time in the Dover area and from Shakespeare Cliff we could look down on the famous harbour. The gun site was built above the present Channel Tunnel entrance, but, of course, that particular Anglo-French engineering hadn't been built in 1941. We didn't only have enemy aircraft to worry about, there were also long range guns on the French coast sending shells across twenty-two miles of salt water. It's a very strange feeling being shelled, hardly any warning, just an explosion in the Dover area when they arrived. On a clear night, the flash of guns could be seen across the Channel and some four minutes later the shells landed here. Immediately the town's shell warning would be sounded, a normal air raid siren repeated. The all clear was given twenty minutes after the last shell. Needless to say the Germans knew this and would lob one over every nineteen minutes or so, 'Just to keep those British on their toes'.

I was off duty one morning and stood, on the cliff edge, watching one of our aircraft carry out a low level search of the coastline. It was a Lysander, and, all of a sudden, a shell came over and splashed in the water just ahead of the slow moving plane. No way could the German gunners have been firing at it but if it weren't for the quick thinking of the pilot they would have had a successful hit. I have never seen such a perfect vertical climb when the RAF pilot guided his aircraft to safety. This type of aircraft was used during the war, to ferry under-cover agents to and from occupied territories. Able to land on short runways in moonlight was its particular advantage.

Another time, also in the early morning, a group of us were making our way to the mess hall for breakfast when we heard aircraft approaching from the sea. We stood and watched. Someone said, "Hurricanes returning home'" "No they're not", another lad added, "they're Spitfires". The three planes were, by this time heading straight towards us. They turned and we could see that they were Messerschmitt 109 German fighters with their yellow undercarriage glinting in the morning sunlight. What a lucky thing we were not the target. They swooped down to the harbour and machine-gunned barrage balloons. Within seconds three hydrogen filled balloons were ablaze and the planes were on their way home. They returned several times during the day and, in all, twelve balloons were destroyed.


On the 16th of June 1941 I joined 308 (City of Rochester) HAA Battery in Leeds, where we prepared for service overseas. When the unit left Rochester they were given a City Flag by the Mayor and Councillors, during a civic farewell. The flag was returned to the City, after the war, and is now hanging in Rochester Cathedral.

When I arrived in Leeds I found that the Battery had moved into an empty cotton mill near Armley Prison. It was a large building and from the top floor windows we were able to watch the prisoners next door. One unusual feature for premises, bearing in mind that it was already quite old, was the secondary glazing that had been fitted to the windows. The nearest frame opened inwards and the other window opened out. One of the chaps, a certain gunner White has good reason to remember those windows. Believing that they were open, he looked out and put his head through the second pane of glass. With a name of White he had previously been known as 'Chalky' but when he returned from hospital he was renamed 'Conky' because of the nasty scar down the centre of his nose.

There was excitement when the stores issued us with tropical kit - "Not to he taken as a clue to our final destination" we were told. We sorted through the gear and tried on bush hats, khaki-drill shorts and jackets. We marvelled at the issue of pyjamas and shirts with collars and ties. Battledress buttoned up to the neck was standard British issue until after the war. Then there was the strange looking 'long shorts', an invention that was supposed to serve two functions. Buttoned up during the day and lowered, during the evening, to cover the knees to protect our skin from the dreaded mosquito. The issue boots and short puttees would cover the remainder of our legs. Needless to say, after arriving in Africa, one of our first jobs was to have the bottom parts cut off. Anyway, after dark we preferred to wear khaki-drill trousers and put the very comfortable mosquito boots on our feet.

Back in Leeds, medics pumped all sorts of serum into our arms, yellow fever, cholera and backup doses of typhoid and tetanus. Some of the lads had to be vaccinated against smallpox as well. Having made sure that we were 'proper poorly' they sent us home on embarkation leave.

Returning to Leeds we discovered that the unit had moved to the district of Headingley, home of the famous Yorkshire cricket club. In fact the offices, dining hall, cookhouse and stores were actually in the pavilion and administration buildings on the ground and our daily parades were on grass which until the war had seen many a test match I expect the ground staff had quite a job reviving the situation after we left. We lived in a nearby row of empty houses.

We were hanging around for nearly three months but it didn't take that long to crate all our equipment and stores. Each container was clearly marked 'Freetown'. "Not significant, only a code word", we were informed. I bet the German high command may have had a different idea.

There were route marches, lectures and discussions to keep us occupied. On one occasion, during the hot, dry, summer of 1941, we helped put out heath fires on Ilkley Moor.

Cigarettes were in very short supply and after hunting in the local shops; we were lucky to find a packet of five 'Woodbines' to smoke. Razor blades were also hard to get, even my own self-sharpening 'Rolls Razor' needed new blades at times.

We sometimes had trips into Leeds city centre and several of us went, on one occasion, to the theatre known as the 'City of Variety'. The BBC broadcasting old time music hall productions used this building. We sat in the front row of the stalls and nearly broke our necks looking up at the stage to see heavily made up chorus girls. The entertainment wasn't very good and halfway through the show someone in the gallery, shouted, 'Fire'. There wasn't any panic but I remember being showered, when an extinguisher was set off over our heads.

On return from our embarkation leave we expected to move straight away but it wasn't to be, there was another long period of waiting with not very much to do. However it did mean further two leave periods.

We did, eventually, leave Leeds towards the end of August 1941, and travelled by train to Liverpool where we boarded the troopship SS.Northumberland, a converted meat carrier. I must say, here and now, that travelling on that ship was by far the best voyage I had during the war. The food was excellent and the canteen had all the things that had been unobtainable at home, apples and oranges at very low prices. Cigarettes and tobacco of every brand, not just those little 'Player's Weights' or 'Will's Woodbines' but full size Player's No I and Senior Service, all at duty free prices. No filter tips in those days. Lots of sweets and chocolates, all without ration coupons.

For the first and only time I slept in a hammock. Quite an experience, the most difficult bit was getting in and out. They were rolled up and stored during the day but at night they were slung across the mess table. The gentle movement of the ship soon had us fast asleep.

We were part of a large convoy, around fifty ships in all. Destroyers and corvettes moved through the ranks searching for enemy submarines while the convoy followed a zigzag course. Apart from doing the odd fatigue we passed most of our time reading, playing cards or just lazing about on the open deck

I gave a hand with the Ship's Concert, organizing and stage-managing. There were army, air force and naval units aboard and each had a share in the show. A friend in 308 Battery, Peter Hudson played the funny man in several sketches. Next day, when we were sitting on deck, a party of nursing sisters walked by and one of them remarked that they had enjoyed the show and that some of Peter's jokes hadn't been heard before. Praise indeed.

Seven days out from Liverpool and as the weather turned warmer conditions on the mess deck became uncomfortable. There was no air conditioning, only blowers moving hot air from one place to another. We began to spend more and more time in the open, even sleeping on the hatch covers until a tropical rainstorm sent everyone down below.

We enjoyed looking over the side of the ship and watching flying fish at play and a school of dolphins swimming alongside. The threat of a U-boat attack kept the whole convoy on constant alert. There was a daily lifeboat drill and guns on some of the ships fired a few practice rounds. Every ship observed complete blackout at night, broken occasionally by the flash of some distant signal lamp passing a message from ship to ship. Rubbish was only dumped overboard during the first hour of darkness, by dawn next day any that hadn't sunk would not give our position away. The sky was a delight to see, more stars visible to the naked eye and for part of our journey the moon was full.

On the 5th of September 1941 we arrived at our destination. Freetown, Sierra Leone, (where else after all our crates had been marked that way) a British Colony on the West Coast of Africa. When all the ships had entered the huge natural harbour at the mouth of the River Rokel the boom boats at the entrance hastily closed the anti-submarine nets across the channel.

Disembarkation, by servicemen due to be stationed in Freetown, took some considerable time and while we waited our turn we were entertained by local black boys, in their palm-tree canoes, diving for coins thrown over the side of the ship. They were only interested in silver money, when we wrapped pennies with silver paper they'd come to the surface and shout abusive language up to us. Even though it was in pigeon English we didn't have any trouble understanding what they were saying.

It was after sunset, which, because we were almost on the equator is always around six o'clock, before we actually left the ship and transferred to small boats for the last part of the journey. We landed in Africa and were taken, in trucks, to Wilberforce Barracks, the depot of the Sierra Leone Regiment. We stayed there for about a week. Every evening, at nine o'clock, a strange ceremony took place on the parade ground. It was the unusual sounds, which excited our curiosity, and when we went out to see what was going on we found a group of African soldiers standing in line and singing. We couldn't make out the words, (it actually took some time before we were able to understand the local dialect). A British officer with this African Infantry Regiment gave us the answer. They were singing the British National Anthem. A voluntary tradition within the unit, nobody went to bed without praising the King in this way.

At night there were many new sounds to get used to. In particular, crickets, they start rubbing their legs together when the sun goes down and continue until daybreak. Mosquitoes bombarded the nets over our beds as we tried to sleep, making the familiar buzzing noise as they came in for another attack. Then there were the man made sounds, native drums, not the war drums of the cinema screen but local villagers having some sort of African jive session.

From our first day on African soil we had to take precautions against malaria. We were given a spoonful of liquid quinine every day. Later on, when Mepaquin had been developed, taking a daily tablet was much easier. That drug had a side effect; our skin took on a yellow tinge. These precautions didn't stop us getting malaria but reduced the intensity of an attack. I suffered around ten doses of the disease during my time in Africa and India. The symptoms are an extremely high fever, headaches and various other aches, similar to a bad dose of influenza. The fever occurs in cycles of three or four days dependent on the type of infection. Total destruction of the watery breeding ground is the only way to keep the disease under control, all Africans are malaria carriers and the Anopheles Mosquito conveys the germ from person to person.

Our Battery was only the second complete European unit to arrive in the colony. The first had become the nucleus of a complete African Regiment and we expected to follow their example. Within two month our total strength of 372 was reduced to 89 other ranks and with African soldiers from Nigeria we formed the 2nd (W.A.) H.A.A. Regiment, W.A.A., part of the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF).

Where did the rest of the men go? Some moved to other units, I nearly transferred to the Royal Engineers. Quite a large number had to be shipped back to the UK having succumbed to one or other of the many tropical diseases, after all the West Coast of Africa was called 'White Man's Grave'.

We moved from Wilberforce Barracks to a camp in Clinetown, a village on the outskirts of Freetown. Now that we had been 'Africanized' all British Other Ranks (BOR's) were given at least one stripe and so I became a Lance Bombardier. I was selected for an additional and rather important job in the unit. For the remainder of my time in Sierra Leone I was camp's medical orderly. I had my own quarters, one end for sleeping and the remainder fitted out as my 'consulting room'. The local military hospital supplied drugs, dressings, etc. and I started up in business, learning by trial and error. A Medical Officer called at the site each day to 'assist' me with sick parade.

Civilian workers and local villagers called me 'Doctor' and I treated all manner of ailments. One of my jobs was to recruit servants to look after us - one shared between three lower ranks and one each for officers and sergeant. We also took on local tribesmen to work in the cookhouse and as sanitary orderlies. Each man had to be medically examined, particularly for venereal disease, before being employed and I helped the MO when he visited the camp but if he wasn't available I carried out the testing myself. These black boys were paid 1/6d (7.5p) a day, and some of them had large families to look alter.

A young boy came for a job, I think he was around twelve years old, and as I now had a responsible position I took him on as my personal helper and paid him out of my own pocket. The army issue servant did my washing and ironing and 'Smutt' (my name for him) cleaned the surgery and ran errands for me.

He was a likeable rogue who was well acquainted with local black market activities. He would arrive for duty carrying a bag, full of American cigarettes, Lucky Strike etc. I would pay him; of course, and then sell them on to the rest of the lads, at a profit. Income from these deals covered the cost of employing the boy.

Some of the special treatments I provided are worth mention. On one occasion a black boy (they're always 'boys' regardless of age) complained that his foot was hurting. They don't wear anything on their feet and after I had cleaned away mud and tar from the sole I could see the head of a nail wedged along his flesh, under the ball of his big toe. I used a pair of pliers to pull it out and then he walked away to get on with his job.

Sgts Dakin, McLaughlin and Lloyd displaying
their tropical kit outside the mess hut
There was a foreman in charge of new building work at the camp and he was always strutting about, full of his own importance. As a mark of his supervisory position he wore an old British topi on his head. That particular headgear saved him when one of his workers attacked with a pickaxe. It penetrated the fibre covering and made a sizeable impression on the foreman's head. A European receiving a similar blow would certainly have died but African heads are very tough. Anyway I had a casualty to deal with. I didn't have any facility to stitch the wound so I pulled the skin together and bandaged a dressing over it. He wanted to go back to work but I gave him a couple of aspirins and persuaded him to go home. The following morning he was back on the job and his attacker was sent to prison for six months.

When I first arrived in Africa all the natives looked the same, it was some time before I could recognize the different features on their black faces. It was customary for the men, in particular, to have tribal marks cut into their upper cheeks. This was done when they were young, a tradition begun during the slave-trading period as a means of recognizing members of the same village. The elders of the tribe would welcome slaves returning home.

My ability to master a foreign language is absolutely zero but this didn't matter in West Africa as everyone spoke pigeon English. They were always cheerful and polite. One of their favourite expressions, which amused us, was, 'I da go - I da come back'. Most of the boys who worked on the camp had unusual names, given by missionaries. There was Andrew Kamara, Simon London, George Washington (how did he get there?) and Jacob Smith.

Sierra Leone was given the name by a Spanish sailor when he first sighted the place during his travels. The mountain range, which is visible from the sea, looks like a lion at rest, hence 'Sierra' for mountain and 'Leone', a lion.

The currency was, at that time, in sterling denominations. The penny, halfpenny and tenth of a penny coins were in white metal with a hole in the centre. The two shilling, one shilling and sixpenny coins were made of a metal similar to our new one pound but with a double milled edge. There were ten shilling and pound notes. I made friends with an African family who lived near the camp and they told me about an earlier coin that had circulated in the Kissy District and known as a Kissy Penny. They gave me one to bring home. It was very unusual and looked more like a toasting fork than a coin. About twelve inches long with a 'T' handle at one end and a crescent at the other. It was made of iron and the long section was twisted several times. I suppose it could be said that, when these were in use, they were the only legal 'forged' coins in the world. Sadly my souvenir was lost during the war.

"" Freetown had a great variety of buildings and shops, some made in brick with cement facing, others in corrugated iron and some typical native homes made from baked mud with a thatched roof. Deep open drains ran down the side of the roads carrying all sorts of rubbish and waste to the river. Lots of unpleasant smells invaded one's nostrils. The local market was also down by the river and here black mammas, in colourful dress, sold fruit, vegetables, dried fish and live chickens. Yes, live chickens, it was up to the purchaser to prepare and cook the poultry. There wasn't much meat for sale, no cattle could exist in Sierra Leone, the country was plagued with Tsetse Fly carrying an animal disease called sleeping sickness. There were no horses in the country, before the motorcar everything had to be manhandled or carried, mostly on the head. This photograph was taken in 1942; I'm sitting in a homemade armchair.

One vehicle, still pulled by hand, belonged to the local funeral director. It was an ornate, glass sided hearse in the form of a box on wheels. Neatly painted along the top of each side were the words, 'Freetown's Sympathetic Undertaker' and the address of his business.

At one end of town, in front of the Court House and Administration buildings, stands the very large and famous Cotton Tree. It is several hundred years old and marks the site of one of the largest slave markets on the West Coast of Africa. Thousands of Negroes were bought and sold on this spot, many to spend the rest of their lives in far off America. Britain abolished slavery in 1788 and later, in the 1830's; the practice became illegal throughout the British Empire. The navy patrolled the coast looking for slave ships; some countries had not introduced abolition. The Cotton Tree featured, once again, in the history of the colony, under its spreading branches slaves brought ashore by the British Navy were given their freedom and the town became known as 'Freetown'.

At the other end of town there was a narrow gauge railway terminus linking Freetown with the rest of Sierra Leone. Steam engines pulled carriages along the side of the main road towards 'Bush Country'. There was nothing to stop pedestrians from wandering in front of the trains as they moved slowly along the track. Whistles sounded continuously. The railway was built to connect the countries diamond mine with the port

The road soon leaves the railway and continues inland. That was our route from Freetown to the radar site at Wellington. At one point the road passes beside a shallow river where dusky maidens could be seen doing their daily washing, bashing the clothes on the wet stones. British forces named that particular stretch of the road, 'Swinging Tit Valley', native women didn't cover their bosoms.

There was always plenty of fresh fruit, bananas and oranges were still green when ready to be eaten. And then there were mangoes, new to us at the time, with a distinctive flavour and a very large stone inside the juicy flesh. Coconuts, lovely and fresh, collected as we watched, from swaying palm trees, were a delight to eat and the milk was out of this world. I mustn't forget the groundnuts (that's what they call peanuts in Africa), available by the sackful.

I am reminded of a particularly lazy soldier we had in the unit. When we first arrived in Freetown and were issued with an African servant to look after our cleaning and laundry arrangements. This chap would lie on his bed and call for the boy to get him some groundnuts, shell them and feed them to him. He also expected the boy to light cigarettes for him. We very soon became tired of hearing him shout 'Boy, more nuts' or 'another cigarette, boy', and told him to stop being such an idiot. He didn't last long, becoming an early casualty of Africanization.

The high rainfall, concentrated in three or four months, made the coastal area green and lush. During my first year in Sierra Leone I recorded the temperature at noon and again in the evening. The average, during the day, was 100F dropping to around 60 at night. Some tropical storms were quite spectacular, thunder and lightning accompanying the torrential rain. On one occasion a nearby flash induced electricity in the camps wiring and lit all the lamps. The generator was not operating at the time.

We often took a shower from the veranda of our hut soaping ourselves and jumping into the rain to rinse off. You may be wondering how we kept clean when it wasn't raining; well we had a homemade shower. An old forty-gallon drum was erected on a tower and the boys kept it filled with water. The outlet was connected through a flexible hose to a tin can with holes punched in the under side. After taking a shower we had to pull a string, which took the water outlet above the supply tank and the flow stopped.

There were lots of lizards about; most of them lived high up in the huts and wandered around catching flies and mosquitoes. They're quite harmless and we enjoyed watching their long tongues darting out when a fly passed by. The Chameleon is another interesting reptile, which changes its colour to suit its surroundings. It can also rotate both eyes individually and finish up with them looking in different directions at the same time.

What other pets did we have? Well there was the baby leopard, which stayed with us until it got too frisky and most camps had a monkey or two. I kept a python, only 36" long and quite harmless. They're not poisonous and have to be a lot longer before they can crush their prey. And then there was my dog 'Lucky' which I purchased with a packet of cigarettes. It soon changed from a half-starved animal to a respectable dog, well fed on cookhouse scraps. Lucky was a medium size hound, brown with a few white patches and we became great friends.

Near to the site in Wellington was a small stream and we opened it out and made a pool for bathing. It wasn't very deep and only large enough for two people at a time but it served us well while we were there.

Now for a couple of things I remember about my medical duties. One of the lads had a boil on his arm and the MO told me to apply something to draw out the inflammation. The patient told me that his mother had always used a bread poultice when he had boils in the past. Following his instructions I prepared one and put it on as hot as possible. Next day the doctor made the following entry on the sick report, 'Second degree burns'.

Another time, during a bad thunderstorm, I was called to the Control Room to attend to someone who had been taken ill. I put on a waterproof cape and tin hat (the only real protection from very heavy rain), picked up my medical bag and hurried out and into the stormy weather. While I was looking at the patient a telephone message from another site informed us that a soldier had been struck by lightning and killed. I left my tin hat behind when I went back to my hut.

We had to teach the Nigerians to operate the radar. Soldiers suitable for this type of training came from the Ebu and Yerabu tribes while the gun numbers were recruited from the Hausa tribe. At the start of a morning lesson it was not uncommon to find a number of notes from the students, the African equivalent of 'an apple for the teacher'. The words of one of these remains in my memory, 'Every night I pray to God for bigger and better RADAR sets'.

My second job, medical orderly, had been extended to cover the general hygiene of the camp including the supervision of our hired servants. One of these boys, he was well in his fifties; had to empty the latrine buckets and this involved walking about half a mile to the river. Like all Africans he carried them on his head. He was quite simple and it took him several days to pluck up courage and report that one of the buckets had a leak.

The same black man was fascinated with our home-made device for keeping the hut door closed, a piece of string passing over a pulley and ending with a weight. For nearly an hour, when he first set eyes on our invention, he kept opening the door and watching it close by itself.

From our very first day in Africa we suffered with the heat and most of us had some kind of skin complaint. There was ringworm, which usually developed round the crutch and prickly heat (a bit like nettle rash) over the chest and back. Nasty little flies had the habit of laying their eggs under the skin. When the grub hatched it desensitized the area around its little home so that we, the host, sometimes never knew we had been infected. I had to remove these grubs from some very unusual places. My own problem was foot rot (Tinea Pedis) a rather bad attack of athlete's foot, which spreads between the toes and then involves the entire foot. I had several periods in hospital with it and wasn't cured until my stay in a Bombay hospital, more about that in the next part of my history.

What were the three services doing in Freetown? In the main, defending a harbour, which was said to be large enough to hold the entire British Navy at the same time. The attack, if it ever came, would be from the north There was a lot of French territory in Africa and the nearest was only five hundred miles away. Germany had an easy starting point if they wanted to take over the west coast. A reconnaissance plane from Dakar made regular visits. It would fly over at noon on Monday, weather permitting, and report back about shipping in the harbour. No action was ever taken against the aircraft and the information collected only confirmed the jungle drum reports anyway.

We all looked forward to the arrival of a convoy, it meant letters from home. Many firms in the UK offered a special service for the boys overseas, relatives could arrange for cigarette and tobacco parcels to be dispatched direct; daily newspapers, clipped into weekly editions, came straight from the publishers. We were able to follow the adventures of Jane in the Daily Mirror.

Cigarettes were on sale in the canteen but they were made in South Africa and we didn't like the quality. One of the brands was called 'C to C' an abbreviation for 'Cape to Cairo'. We renamed them 'Camel to Consumer' South African 'Woodbines' were never like their namesake available in England.

I still avoided too much drink and usually gave my monthly beer ration to one of the other lads. The allowance of three bottles came from the Belgium Congo and was no substitute for the good old English pint. I wasn't a complete abstainer, sometimes having a 'Gin & Lime' in one of the Freetown bars, just right on a hot day and far better than the tea available in the service canteen.

We had a lot of free time and some of it was spent on the sandy beaches to the south of Freetown. We'd go out for the day, travelling in an army truck, to Lumley, where we could laze on the golden sands after taking a dip in the tepid seawater. We'd keep out of the sun by staying in the shade of swaying palm trees.

For entertainment the district boasted a service cinema showing a mixture of old and new films. There was only one snag, the African projectionist sometimes mixed the reels and we would have to watch them in the wrong order. We had one visit by an ENSA group of entertainers. They performed in a large hall so that as many servicemen as possible could see the show. One memorable act, a gifted pianist playing the Warsaw Concerto and, as he passed his fingers over the piano keys, a red glow developed over the back cloth and with it a painted scene of burning buildings. Needless to say the audience very much appreciated his rendition of, what to us, was, a new piece of music.

In the camp we amused ourselves playing cards or chess, and there was our own board game 'Tropical Monotony' fashioned on Monopoly. A lot of local places were included, Kissy Street and Freetown Station in place of Oxford Street and Kings Cross Station. Everything was hand made, the board, the property and the paper money. We also had an old portable gramophone, which went around the huts on a strictly agreed rota. There were only two records (78's) and even when the spring broke we still continued to play them by rotating the turntable with the end of a finger.

There was an Air Force unit in Freetown, not with land based planes but down on the river. Sunderland Flying Boats left regularly to patrol the sea searching for enemy submarines. These British built aircraft were a wonderful sight as they skimmed across the water on take off and when they returned after many hours of flying across the ocean. Later, in 1953, we witnessed the last few flights of this majestic seaplane when we were living in Pembroke Dock. Another sad day in the history of flying, the jet engine had taken over and the only Sunderlands remaining are in museums.

Sierra Leone, like any other place in the tropics, has lots of things that we only see in zoos. I've already mentioned my pet python, only 36" long and friendly but there are quite a lot of snakes, which are deadly poisonous. The green mamba is one of them. When a snake is sighted everybody responds to the cry of 'SNAKE' with any weapon they can lay their hands on to chase and kill it. However, during my stay in Africa and later in India, I never came across a casualty from snakebite, which was a good thing as we were instructed to take the snake to the hospital so that the correct antidote could be administered.

After a period in hospital 1 had a week's break in the army rest camp located in the grounds of Brigade HQ. An interesting thing happened during the week. The officers' shower was in the open just in front of the hut where I was staying and one afternoon the Brigadier went inside to bathe. Over in another building the cook was preparing the evening meal, chicken with all the trimmings. One of the live birds decided that it didn't like the idea and rushed outside, followed by the cook and a number of black servants. The bird went into the shower building and through to the other end and when it came out it was still being chased, by a white man, the Brigadier, holding a towel about his waist, and a string of black boys. It was hard to stop us from laughing out loud as the game of 'Chase the Chicken' continued round the huts. Unfortunately the bird lost the race and joined its mates in the oven.

I have already said the West Coast of Africa was called the 'White Man's Grave', and because of the high rate of illness and disease servicemen would normally get leave after being stationed there for twelve months. As a general rule married men went home to the UK and unmarried types had their break in South Africa. Lucky for me, I became an exception to the rule, there was a spare place on a ship going to England and I didn't object to taking it.

What a wonderful sight as the barge took us from the shore and headed towards a very large ship, the beautiful cruise liner, Mauritania, pride of the Cunard Line. She was launched early in 1939 and had never been used for her intended role. In January 1943 the ship had been to Casablanca on the coast of Morocco where she had served as a floating hotel for the meeting of Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt. Those two famous leaders returned to their respective countries by air and the liner proceeded to Freetown. I always like to think that she came especially to take me home on leave.

The voyage was most memorable; no need for a naval escort, the ship could speed across the ocean at thirty knots. It took ten days to reach Liverpool, even though she made a very wide sweep westwards to avoid 'U Boat Alley', and almost touching the territorial waters of the United States.

Externally the ship had been painted grey, but once inside some of its true glory could still be seen. The dance floor had been cleared and covered with protective boards. It was now filled with bunk beds and that's where we slept during the journey. Meals were eaten at rows of mess tables, which replaced the luxury dining room furniture in one of the ships restaurants.

Some of the highly decorated ceilings were still visible and the carved and polished woodwork on the wide stairways between decks was quite magnificent. The stair treads were protected with strips of wood and I remember that we were only allowed to wear gym shoes on board ship.

The canteen was well stocked and I was able to buy duty free cigarettes to take home with me. Remembering that razor blades were also in short supply and I bought some.

Within a day or so our khaki drill clothing was packed away and we put on battledress and greatcoats, after all it was only February. The ship docked in Liverpool and after customs had checked us, we were issued leave passes, ration coupons and railway warrants. I had six whole weeks leave before reporting to the depot in Woolwich for further instructions

At the time I was still only a humble Lance Bombardier, there was one stripe on my battledress jacket but the sleeve of my greatcoat had no indication of rank. So there I was, walking down the gangway wearing a bush hat and with collar and tie plainly visible under my overcoat. I looked very different from other British soldiers; they had to button their jackets right up to the neck. A smartly dressed Military Police Sergeant stood on the quay and I asked him to direct me to the railway station. Imagine my surprise when he replied, 'This way, Sir, let me help you with your kit'. He had mistaken me for an officer. We set off together, him leading the way and carrying one of my bags. I changed my warrant at the booking office and he found a seat for me in a First Class Compartment. I watched for the sergeant to leave the platform before moving to the third class section of the train, already crowded with troops travelling home. Luckily I was able to find an empty seat.

Trains were completely blacked out during the hours of darkness. Blinds were pulled down over the windows and the only light came from small blue lamps. Not enough for reading and, anyway, most passengers on wartime trains either dozed or chatted during their journey.

It was late evening when the train arrived at Euston. Nearly home, just a short underground ride and then a bus to Crouch End. All the tube station platforms were converted into air raid shelters, and, even when there wasn't an alarm, regulars came down to spend the night on bunk beds secured to the walls. There were whole families some eating their fish and chip supper in newspaper wrappings.

While I was on leave Joyce managed to get a short break from her HAA gun site and we made our engagement official. Two of my brothers also got home on leave and we had a studio photograph taken, Fred, George and myself with Mother.

At the end of my six weeks leave I reported to Woolwich and waited for the authorities to return me to my unit in Freetown. Unknown to me, and because of the successful victory in North Africa, any threat to the West Coast of Africa had diminished. While I had been enjoying my leave, the 2nd HAA Regiment had been ordered overseas and actually left Freetown on 26th May 1943, heading for India.

It seemed that this information had also filtered through to Woolwich and a rapid change of plan meant a further six weeks kicking my heels at the depot. The RQMS took my bush hat away and replaced it with an old fashioned khaki topee, just the right headgear for India, he told me, and that's where I'll be heading when I start the next part.

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