Comrades In Arms

Joining Up and Those Early Days

How often we have heard the phrase 'the day war broke out' and in many cases we are able to speak to people who can vividly remember that particular September 3rd as if it was yesterday. Our four Veterans are no different from other members of their generation, since that Sunday morning was one of the most fateful in the history of this country. For them, and thousands of others, life was never going to be the same again.

Geoff Turner was no longer at school, in fact he had been in employment for three years and so his recollections are somewhat different from the other three men. As were his first few years of the war.

'I had joined the Territorial Army in 1936 and so was likely to be first in line when war finally broke out. They actually came and fetched me on the Friday, two days before the outbreak of war. One of the fellers came and told me that I had to report to the Drill Hall which was then in Stafford Street.'

'After the session on the Friday night we were told to report back on the Saturday morning. My younger brother was with me at the time so my parents were in tears as they thought of their 'babies' going off to war. It must have been something of a shock for them at the time, to say the least.'

'Nevertheless we went on the Saturday morning and we were kitted out, or at least we got as much as they had at the time, which wasn't really that much. It was nothing like today when the blokes get all the gear.'

'About 5 or 6 in the evening we were told to go back home, but to be back at the Drill Hall by about 7.30 on the Sunday morning. We were told that we would not be going home again. They were obviously expecting war to be declared the following day, which of course it was.'

'On the Sunday morning we went back and there was a load of buses and coaches waiting there for us. We went over to Cannock, that's the First VI South Staffs, the Second VI went to Penkridge. We were dispersed all over the Cannock Chase area. We were in Heath Hayes, Hednesford, Chadsmoor, Rugeley and all around the rest of the area.'

'We did our early training around there on the Chase and we were made up by regulars from the South Staffs who had come back from duty in India. They were given commissions as NCOs and RSMS. They were all regulars and so they knew that little bit more than any of us. It was a very strict regime, as you would expect with a war on.'

'The intention must have been for those blokes to bring us up to scratch and instil that little bit of discipline which was needed if we were going to be facing the enemy soon after our initial training. Shortly after that we were sent to Broaden in Hampshire to prepare for embarkation. We got all of our gear there. It was one of the loneliest and most harrowing times of my life.'

Geoff Turner as a drummer with the Staffordshire Regiment Band, in Stafford Street, Wolverhampton, in 1937.

'We went to Southampton and sailed from there to Le Havre. I remember the CQMS coming round and giving every last one of us, a tin of McConachie. It was a kind of stew. It was hard rations and I always will remember that I asked where the spoon was and some of the 'old sweats' from World War 1 who were with us told me I didn't need a spoon, after all I had my fingers.'

'People came round with a sort of scout knife because that was about the only way that you could get the lid off the tin. We had to eat it cold because we were so hungry and there wasn't much of a way of getting it heated up.'

'From Le Havre we went by train to Bethune which was a coal mining area in the north of France. We stayed there until Hitler's troops broke through on May 10th 1940. We were all woken up and the Germans started to bomb the big square in the centre of the town. It was my first experience of 'real' war. I remember someone shouting 'What's this?' and someone shouting 'It's a bomb! That was the day war really started for me and many other young soldiers.’

'Within a month we were on the retreat and found ourselves on the beaches at Dunkirk. I managed to get off the beaches, like so many others, thank God but when I got back it was obvious that the position of the BEF was totally chaotic since no-one knew who had come back and who had not. It took ages for the position to sort itself out. If Hitler had come over then, there's no way we could have held him off. Thank God it never happened.'

'I came over with two other fellers, One of whom came from Wolverhampton. In fact, he's still alive. It's not really so surprising that you came back with chaps from your own neck of the woods because you joined up with them. I got back on a destroyer, not on one of the little ships. We were treated so very well on the crossing back home. I've never been so happy to see the White Cliffs of Dover and England.'

'We came into Dover and then we went by train to Aldershot. We moved down to Paignton for three weeks with the intention of trying to get units back up to strength again. After Paignton we went to Sheffield and it was there that the biggest effort was made to bring the chaps together and re-establish the South Staffs. In fact, we were made up to number, along with some conscripted blokes. We were back to a Battalion strength of 800.'

'It was as a battalion that we were sent on coastal defences to the East coast, around Redcar, Stockton and Guiseborough. We did so much time on the beach, marching around with our 'pick-axe handles'. There was no chance we could have repelled the invader like that! It was a year before we had rifles again. We stayed in the area for about three months until the end of 1940. We moved further up the coast to Hexham in Northumberland early in 1941.'

'I got one of the best billets you could wish for because I was stationed in the front room of a pub. The pub was still in use as well. it was also at this time that I had my first experience of an Army hospital because I had some trouble with my ear. I was put under a real old veteran who kept me in that hospital for three months. It was only after the Captain came and told me that if I didn't leave the hospital, I would be sent to a holding regiment and so lose contact with my mates from the area, that I managed to get the doctor to discharge me. The South Staffs were off to Northern Ireland.'

'We went to Ireland and were based at a little place called Rostrevor which is between Warren Point and Newry. It was on the coast near to a big loch. It was little more than a village. At Rostrevor we began quite intensive training. Little did we know that the training would not be needed for another three years.'

When the war broke out Ron Picken found himself in a reserved occupation. He was working at Daimler's in Courtaulds on the oil pumps for armoured cars. He was not very happy, especially as many of the men he had grown up alongside were joining the Forces.

'When the war started and especially after Dunkirk I think everybody in the country felt that it was the end and it was up to every one of us to stand and be counted. I was still too young for the Forces, but I joined the Home Guard.'

'One night I had my first introduction to the war when the Luftwaffe dropped some incendiaries along the roof of the power station. There was a little Home Guard chap in a box down at the flood gate when the incendiaries dropped. That chap was me and I stayed in that box. When the sergeant was looking for me, they realised I was still down at the flood gate and so they came running up and found me. I was ordered to go inside.'

'Most of my mates were joining the Royal Navy and I wanted to do the same but because I was supposedly in a reserved occupation, I couldn't go. I became more depressed as the war went on. I was so depressed I went on permanent nightshift.'

'One day I actually went to the Naval Recruitment Office in Birmingham. I was still only 17, so I put my age up and volunteered for the Navy. I was called up as Al fit and I was sent to Fulford Barracks in Yorkshire, which was not a Naval base.'

'When I got to Fulford, I remember asking if they could tell me where the Naval ships were and how I could reach there. I was soon informed that Ron Picken had been posted to the Rifle Brigade, not His Majesty's Navy. It was not a case of 'I'm sorry, we've made a mistake' it was a case of 'You're in the Army now.'

Ron aged 17 in 1943, in Rifle Brigade Uniform.

'The Rifle Brigade became my regiment. I did all my training at Fulford on the rifle and the bren gun, both of which I had had some experience with in the Home Guard. I got my cross guns and crown within weeks of being at Fulford. In fact, I was a top shot with both weapons, so I automatically became a bren gunner.'

'It was after Fulford that the real training started for me. This involved courses on map reading where they took us out and 'lost' us in the Welsh mountains and we had to find our way back. It was all that sort of training. I was taught to drive in Carlisle at the Army Driving School. I could drive a car, a lorry and ride a motorbike, all courtesy of His Majesty's Forces.'

Bob Stokes was apparently unable to join up because he was needed at the shoe repair shop in Darlaston. He wanted to become a member of the Forces and so he was forced to take the initiative.

'I went to the Recruiting Office in Bell Street near the TB Clinic and I tried to get into the RAF. He asked me a number of questions and then he asked why I hadn't tried to get into the Army, so that's what I did next. The Army gave me the usual answer that I was exempt because of my occupational situation. The next week I took the other lad from the shop along with me and explained that he could look after the shop and so I was no longer exempt.'

'The next week the Recruiting Office sent a letter to check on my occupational situation. As I was in charge of the shop, I waited for the letter and collected it. I signed it and said that 'Mr. Stokes' was no longer required at the shop because of the new member of staff. That meant that I was free to go.'

'About a month later my call up papers arrived and I was told to report to Bodmin in Cornwall. I was to be there on my nineteenth birthday. I'd never been further than Bridgnorth or Stourport in my life up to that day.'

'I got my papers at the same time as another bloke who came from Portobello in Willenhall. I met him on Portobello Bridge at midnight and we walked from there to Wolverhampton. This was in 1943. We both caught the train to Bodmin. That in itself was an experience because as we went down we went through a number of air raids. I was wondering what the hell I had let myself in for.'

'After four months initial training at Bodmin, we were all split up and sent to our new regiments. I was sent to the Somerset Light Infantry at St. Osyth, near Clacton, in Essex. We spent a lot of our time laying barbed wire defences around the coast and it was one of the most boring times in my life. Thank God that a memo came around from the 6th Airborne Division which offered an extra shilling a day if you were deemed fit enough to join them.'

'It was just the excuse I needed to getaway from Essex and the barbed wire. I needed no further encouragement. Anyway, it sounded a little more exciting than my current situation and offered an opportunity to really get involved.'

Bob Stokes behind a Vickers machine gun in 1944.

Geoff Ensor was still at school when the war broke out but he was already doing his duty as a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service. Like so many of his contemporaries, Geoff had a desire to join the Forces at the first available opportunity.

'The day war broke out in September 1939, I was at the AFS Headquarters in Chubbs factory buildings in Railway Street in the morning and filling sand bags at the Imperial Dairy in Merry Hill in the afternoon. That was No. 5 Station. I was still in the AFS.'

'I left school in July 1940 and I went to work at Yale in Willenhall as a cost clerk. It was a nice staff job, working from 9 to 5 and receiving a pound a week. I got 2/6d from the pound, my mother got the other 17/6d.'

'One of the leading firemen in the AFS was a Production Controller at Villiers in Marston Road and I was talked into going to work with him. I then got 30 bob. I worked 48 hours at Villiers for my 30 bob, so in fact I earned less than I had at Yale because there I got a pound for 35 hours.'

'I remember the first weekend I worked at Villiers, it was a very heavy snowfall, so I walked to work through the snow rather than rode to Willenhall on my bike as I used to do.'

'While I was still with the AFS I came closer to death than probably at any other time. It was during a raid one night. Most of the bombs had been dropped on Birmingham, very few on Wolverhampton. I was out on a call on Goldthorn Hill and had to try and find a fire hydrant. The hydrant I found was the wrong size. It was a South Staffs hydrant, not a Wolverhampton one. Anyway, when I had found the hydrant we were able to fight the fire.'

'It was at a house called Waverley House on Goldthorn Hill. The house is still there. We needed to make a hole in the ceiling and so I was sent to get a ceiling hook which I did. I made the hole. The other chap had to go out because the smoke had got to him. Anyway, while I was pouring water through the ceiling, it came down. It fell right across me onto the staircase. I was extremely lucky.'

'The fire had been caused by an incendiary. They dropped quite a few that night. I got a new pair of shoes out of that fire because I was on Fire Service duty. Mind you, that house went up again later in the night but another station had to deal with it that time.'

'I stayed at the Villiers until January 1943. I should have left earlier but the Navy would not accept me because I was employed in engineering. I could never understand why this should prevent me from becoming an engineering rating in the Navy, it was the same line of work after all.'

'When I was due to go for my medical for the Navy the first time I had bronchitis, so I couldn't go. The second time I went for the medical it was at a small place on Snow Hill, just down from St Mary and John's church. They only seemed concerned as to whether I had recovered from the bronchitis, I said I had and so I was pronounced fit enough for Naval service. It was a case of me pronouncing myself fit.'

'I was sent to HMS Glendower which is now the Butlin's camp at Pwilheli. Shortly after getting there I was put on the C&W (Commissions and Warrants) Course which involved getting up at about 6.30 in the morning to go on a run. We had another run at the end of the day. The day was spent square bashing and other training. Everything was done at the double. We had Captain's Board at the end of three months and if we passed we were sent to OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit).'

'At that time we were told we could either volunteer for special service, for which they needed physically fit, unmarried men or we could go on general service and do a minimum of three months at sea and then go on to OCTU. I was as mad as anybody so I went for special service.'

'As a result I did a further period at Glendower and then went to Lochailort, between Fort William and Mallaig in Scotland which was for combined operations' officer training. It was a very strict regime. There were Wrens there but Officer Cadets were not allowed to 'fraternise'. One night a Cadet was seen talking to two Wrens. He was on the train back to barracks the next morning.'

'We did in six weeks what was supposed to take three months at HMS King Alfred in Sussex. At the end of the six weeks I was lucky enough to get a commission as a Midshipman or a 'snotty' as they are called in the service. From there I went to HMS Heider at Brightlingsea for landing craft training.'

Midshipman Ensor R.N.V.R. in 1943.

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