« My Country's Finest Novelists | Main | Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 »

To War With The Bays: 3 - Drilling

...It was a bitterly cold winter that year, and mothers, sisters, and girlfriends were busy knitting as many comforts for us as they could. Ronnie used to go to bed wearing a balaclava, scarf and socks! It was cold too, drilling with guns, especially pistols, and though we wore mittens when we could, at pistol drill our fingers used to be freezing. We learned to fire just about every gun there was: .38 pistols, .45 pistols (heavy pistols those were), tommy-guns, rifles, machine-guns. There was one gun we feared; it was an anti-tank rifle. You lay on the ground to fire it, and it was essential to hold it tight into your shoulder because of the recoil. Even held correctly the recoil could knock you back a foot. Not held tightly, and your shoulder got a nasty shock....

Jack Merewood recalls his early army training in North Yorkshire. Jack was in combat in North Africa, Italy and Germany in World War Two. His vivid accounts of front-line action are being serialised in Open Writing. To read earlier chapters please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

Drilling on the square was an almost daily part of our training, often with rifles, and woe betide anyone who dropped one. He was made to pick it up and run round the square, rifle held at arm's length above his head, till told to stop. The troop corporal was Corporal Payne, and though Chesty eventually knew us all by name, if anyone committed any misdemeanour the voice rasped out, 'Take his name, Corporal Payne.' As time went by and we got used to it, this became something of a joke between us - and eventually we found that Chesty's bark was worse than his bite. But although at times he was really rough on us, he was, to give him his due, a fair man. He was never spiteful. If he gave us a rough time it was usually because we deserved it. I don't think, though, that he realised that butchers, bakers and candlestick makers can't be transformed into soldiers overnight.

It was a bitterly cold winter that year, and mothers, sisters, and girlfriends were busy knitting as many comforts for us as they could. Ronnie used to go to bed wearing a balaclava, scarf and socks! It was cold too, drilling with guns, especially pistols, and though we wore mittens when we could, at pistol drill our fingers used to be freezing. We learned to fire just about every gun there was: .38 pistols, .45 pistols (heavy pistols those were), tommy-guns, rifles, machine-guns. There was one gun we feared; it was an anti-tank rifle. You lay on the ground to fire it, and it was essential to hold it tight into your shoulder because of the recoil. Even held correctly the recoil could knock you back a foot. Not held tightly, and your shoulder got a nasty shock.

We learned about poison gases and to assemble hand grenades. Dummies at first, and then the real thing. Then learned how to throw them, a fairly dangerous practice.

We also learned to drive. The first vehicle I ever drove was a bren-gun carrier, a small open-topped tracked vehicle, steered with a steering wheel as opposed to a tank which was steered by tiller bars. Tiller bars were levers, one connected to each track, so that when the right hand one was pulled, for example, this slowed down the right hand track. The left track continued at its original speed, so the tank turned to the right. From bren-gun carriers we graduated to tanks, mostly Crusaders and Stuarts.

The man who taught us to drive was a Corporal Weaver and we thought he was mad! Out on the moors round Catterick, where we learned to drive, was one favourite place of his he called 'The Big Apple'. I never knew why - where the ground sloped upwards then dropped away at the other side. He used to get a fiendish pleasure out of running a Crusader up the slope as fast as he could, then 'taking off' at the top as though flying and falling to earth at the other side with a bang.

Crusaders were British tanks, low, sleek-looking and capable of speeds up to 40 m.p.h. Unfortunately the armoured sides were very thin. They had a crew of four: driver, wireless operator, gunner and tank commander. The guns were two-pounders (2 lb weight of the shell) and a machine gun, both in the turret, both loaded by the wireless operator, but fired by the gunner, the gunner sitting at one side of the breech and the wireless operator at the other.

The Stuarts were American tanks and were like sardine tins. Hopeless things they were. The crew was similar to that of a Crusader, but the 'heavy' gun was a 37 mm bore, more like a peashooter than a gun. And whereas the turret on a Crusader was operated by the gunner just turning a 'spade-grip' (a device shaped like a spade handle which when gripped could be turned to the left or right to traverse, power-driven, the whole turret), in the Stuart the gunner had to stand and rotate the turret by turning a big wheel,very similar to that of an old mangling machine. This meant that at times he found himself climbing over the back of the driver. Imagine coming up against the Germans in these tin boxes, but we found ourselves doing just that two years later in North Africa.

In the tanks we wore headphones and received instructions from the tank commander over a microphone; otherwise with the noise of the engine and the guns it was pretty near impossible to hear. However, sometimes when later we were in action we would dispense with them and just shout at each other. We also had to see where we were going through periscopes. There were periscopes in the cupolas (lids) of the tanks, but these were never used, because we never travelled with the lid closed, the view would be too restricted. So the tank commander always stood with his head and generally half his body out of the top of the tank.

Sometimes with the tanks we'd drive into Leyburn, park in the square there and have a cup of tea and a bun in a nearby cafe. We had by necessity occasionally to drive on the roads. When we did so, it meant being especially careful not to turn quickly, for this could result in a track digging into the road surface.

Categories

Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.