In addition to my telephone duties I was obliged to act as batman (servant) to the two younger officers. I didn’t care for this but had no option. It involved going into their bedrooms first thing, collecting their jackets and shoes, polishing their buttons and their shoes. One of them was a heavy drinker. His bedroom of a morning smelled so strongly of spirits that I used to feel that if you lit a match the room would explode.
Those few months passed pleasantly. We were in civilian lodgings so had a certain amount of freedom. It was during that time that Nottingham had its one and only air raid. Waves of German planes bombing Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool etc used to pass over very often. They followed the River Trent to Nottingham and then swung north. You could tell they were German planes because the two engines weren’t synchronised so they made a distinctive sound. On their way over the sirens went off indicating a possible air raid. The guns and searchlights laid low but they went off full blast when the planes were returning. Bits of steel from the exploding anti aircraft shells fell to ground and did quite a bit of damage. I don’t remember hearing of any planes actually being brought down by anti aircraft fire but the noise of the guns going off was good for civilian morale.
When we heard the bombs falling (and exploding some distance away) another soldier and I felt that we ought to go to the damaged area to see if we could help dig people out of ruined buildings etc. We could see fires so we headed off in that direction. On the way we met a patrol of Military Police probably looking for potential looters. They ordered us to go back to our billets. The next day I was going to Burton-on-Trent to visit Dad who was stationed near there. In the city centre the streets were full of broken glass which crunched when you walked on it. That was the only time I saw anything like that although some cities suffered raids regularly with heavy civilian casualties.
Dad was stationed in a place called Cheadle, Staffordshire guarding a top secret establishment in a large hall. It was so secret that he wasn’t allowed to know what it was. A blanket screened off the stairs from the hallway. Once he went past the blanket and was severely choked off by the air force officer in charge who warned him that if he did it again he would be court martialled. It had something to do with radio (called wireless then). There was a large mast in the grounds. It was warm weather and a lot of the upstairs windows were open. You could see air force girls with headphones on. Dad said he’d heard German voices.
A lot of years after the war, and long after Dad died, I found out that it was the principal interception station for Ultra (the codebreaking organisation.) Throughout the war the boffins at Bletchley Park cracked the German codes and so we were able to read secret German messages about the disposition of their forces and intentions etc. It’s been said that this made the difference between winning and losing the war. Quite often vital information couldn’t be acted on because to do so would tip off the enemy to the fact that we were able to read his messages in which case he would have changed his codes and we’d have lost that advantage.
I went round with Dad at night to inspect the sentries. We found one man asleep at his post (a very serious and even capital offence in wartime). We stole his rifle. When he came in Dad asked him where his rifle was. He said he’d gone behind a tree to have a lag (to urinate) and when he came back he found that a German paratrooper had stolen his rifle. We then produced it and Dad let him off with a verbal blasting.
On the way home on a bus the conductress was a girl about Leslie’s age that I knew. She lived in the area where the bombs fell and said they could have used all the help they could get. I need to go back to just before I joined the army. Dad reenlisted in April 1940 and I joined up in June 1940 so I imagine this must have been about May of that year. Dad was commissioned into the Home Defence Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment and given command of a small unit charged with defending a 3 mile long railway tunnel in Yorkshire. He and some of his men were at one end and some others were at the far end. The tunnel was on a main line and there were frequent passenger and goods trains going through. They were pulled by steam engines, and steam and smoke built up in the tunnel. You could tell when a train entered the far end of the tunnel because it pushed smoke in front of it and that started to come out of the end. On the approach to the tunnel the tracks passed through a quite high cutting in the rock. Dad and I were walking along the side of the rails, which were not very far from the rock face, when an express goods train appeared on the scene. There was no way for us to escape so Dad grabbed my wrist and we flattened ourselves against the rock and hoped for the best. The train appeared to consist of empty wagons and it was very long so although it was travelling extremely fast it seemed to take forever to pass.
The wheels appear of moderate size from a distance but up close they’re enormous. So there we were with these great steel wheels whizzing by probably less than a metre away. I forgot to mention that this was night and dark which didn’t help. We didn’t discuss this but I was well aware that the slipstream from a fast travelling train could suck you into the wheels. Fortunately that didn’t happen but it was a great relief when the train disappeared into the tunnel and we could get out of there. next