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To War With The Bays: 1 - 1939: Joining Up

...At 11 o'clock on that fateful Sunday morning, 3 September 1939, I was still at home. We listened to Neville Chamberlain on the wireless. When he said we were now in a state of war with Germany, my mother burst into tears...

Jack Merewood is called up and finds out that he is to serve in the Royal Armoured Corps.

This is the first episode of Jack's vivid account of his time as a combat soldier. Watch out for further chapters every Saturday in Open Writing.

In September 1938 Neville Chamberlain came back from his meeting in Munich with Hitler, waving his famous piece of paper and declaring 'Peace in our time'. However, neither he nor the Government must have been 100% sure of this because they decided to introduce conscription in Great Britain in 1939.

In that year all young men aged twenty were required to register to serve six months in the Army and three-and-a-half years on the reserve. This meant an employer must release a young man for six months, after which he would go back to work; then he had to be given a month off each year for the next three years to go back into the Army to 'brush up' on his training.

I was twenty in February 1939, and in due course received notification that I was to report to the Drill Hall in Huddersfleld one Saturday afternoon in June. I remember the occasion well, because it was a lovely hot sunny day and I had reluctantly to leave a cricket match I was watching at Lockwood cricket field.

My mother's two youngest brothers were both in the Territorial Army in the Royal Artillery. I told the interviewer that I worked in a bakehouse.

'Oh - you'll be just right then for an army cookhouse,' he said.

'No,' I replied.

If I had to spend six months in the Army I wanted to get away from baking and cooking and wanted to be outside. He asked if I had any preference when going into the Services. Not knowing one from the other and with my two uncles in mind, I said I would choose the Royal Artillery.

At 11 o'clock on that fateful Sunday morning, 3 September 1939, I was still at home. We listened to Neville Chamberlain on the wireless. When he said we were now in a state of war with Germany, my mother burst into tears. Only twenty-one years since the last war finished - and now another one.

A month or so later I received my calling-up papers, and had to report to Catterick Camp in North Yorkshire on 30 October. With the papers came a railway ticket to Richmond Station, the nearest one to Catterick Camp, two or three miles away. I duly arrived at Richmond with seemingly hundreds of others, and we were loaded into the waiting army trucks. There were many camps of different regiments at Catterick and we were delivered to one of them.

We were then taken to the medical centre and given inoculations in both arms and a vaccination, then paraded to the canteen where we were given our 'tea' - two thick slices of bread with a slice of corned beef between and a mug of tea, then allocated to different barrack rooms. It was a cold night and the single stove in the middle of the room was unlit. Everyone was cold and miserable.

Next morning we were awakened at 6.30 a.m. by the strident notes of a bugle -- reveille a sound we would hear every morning for several months to come. Then breakfast -- bacon, porridge, tea, and more slabs of bread; after which we all paraded on the square, I don't know how many, perhaps a hundred or so. A sergeant stood in front with a list of names in his hand.

'As your name is called out, go and stand over there,' he said.

The names were called, and everybody stood 'over there' - everybody that is except for one man who was left standing on his own, isolated from his fellow men. The one man feeling very conspicuous and embarrassed was - me! The sergeant asked my name, checked through his list again - I wasn't on it. He gave instructions to all the other men, then told me to follow him. He went into an office and I waited outside. When he came out he said I shouldn't be here in the R.A., but across the road in the R.A.C.

The R.A.C. turned out to be the Royal Armoured Corps where men were trained to fight in tanks. He explained how to get there, diagonally across the road about 300 yards away, and to whom to report; they would be expecting me. I did as I was told, and on reporting was informed that I should have been there yesterday, and now to join everybody else as they were just about to have their vaccinations and inoculations. This was a little disconcerting, but fortunately I was able to produce my paybook, which confirmed that I had all these things last night.

And so began my army career at Catterick - in the Royal Armoured Corps.

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