« Great'ma - Part Seven | Main | The Bard And The Slug »

To War With The Bays: 8 - Stuarts And Crusaders

...One night there was a heavy air raid on the city of Bristol, and next day we were sent to help clear up. Bombs had fallen in an area of shops and offices. Now they were piles of rubble. We searched for any victims who might be trapped, but found no one, and we helped to load the debris into lorries to be taken away. Something there left a lasting impression on me. In the middle of the ruins the Salvation Army had set up a table and were handing out free cups of tea. It was heartening to see the determined spirit of everyone there. That incident endeared the Salvation Army to me for the rest of my life...

Jack Merewood was granted home leave after being miraculously evacuated as German troops swept relentlessly into France. He was then sent to Salisbury plain for tank training. But the war was coming closer and closer to home...

The Lady of Mann sailed into Plymouth in daylight on 20 June. On the dockside we were handed postcards to send to our families, to tell them we were safe and back in England. We then went by train to the village of Longbridge Deverill in Wiltshire on the edge of Salisbury Plain. We had no tanks, no trucks, no equipment - nothing except a few belongings we had managed to cram into our kitbags on the hurried departure from the French barn. We were under canvas, and after having been there about three days were sent home on leave for eleven days, kitbags and all.

I had to change trains in London during the Blitz. Bombs were falling, and sirens wailing. There was an unreal atmosphere; the whole City seemed to be on fire. The journey from Paddington Station to King's Cross was by necessity partly on the tube, then by bus. People were trying to sleep in the underground stations. Wooden structures had been erected, and the platforms were lined with bunk beds. Over the next few months I came through London a number of times. They were always traumatic, harrowing experiences - especially at night.

On the train home from London there was another soldier in the same carriage as myself.

'Bad thing about Dunkirk, wasn't it?' he said.

I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was obviously expected to know.

'Er - yes,' I mumbled.

I reached Huddersfield at last, then arrived home to great celebrations. My family had given me up for lost weeks ago. And it was then I learned why I was supposed to know about Dunkirk.

About three weeks before we left Brest, after the collapse of the French and Belgian armies, the British forces had to retreat, and the huge evacuation from Dunkirk had taken place. However, while all this was going on our Regiment was still fighting, and we had little idea of what was happening. Somebody must have suddenly realised we were still in France and organised the headlong flight to Brest, and back across the Channel. How we escaped capture, I don't know.

Our families thought that once everyone had been evacuated from Dunkirk, any other soldiers had either been killed or taken prisoner. They had no news of us until our postcards arrived from Plymouth, so to them it was something of a miracle to learn that we were in England.

Home for over a week! I immediately changed into civilian clothes. This was strictly against Army rules, but it was a relief to get out of my uniform, also to be wearing shoes. I went into town with some trepidation, because there were MPs about and if I had been stopped I could have been in trouble. Very few young men wore civilian clothes and ones dressed like this were regarded with some suspicion. However I escaped notice.

With my parents I went to Blackpool for a few days. In Stanley Park there were some young soldiers doing rifle drill. We stopped to watch them, and one turned to me and said: 'It's alright standing there watching it'll be your turn soon.'

My leave was over all too soon and it was with a feeling of despair that I left home again to return to Longbridge Deverill to rejoin the Regiment. We were only there a few days before we were moved again, this time to be under canvas on the outskirts of nearby Warminster, still in Wiltshire.

Now we were issued with new kit and new tanks, still Crusaders and Stuarts, and it was back to training. This time instead of driving the tanks on the moors round Catterick we were driving on the plains round Warminster. There was little to choose between the two; they were equally uninteresting, and Warminster was about as exciting as Richmond. But at least it was summer now. We were often out in the tanks very early in the mornings, and would collect mushrooms, take them back to the cookhouse and the cook would fry them for us with bacon for breakfast - delicious!

Now there was more of an opportunity for men in No. 1 Troop to become better acquainted. I was quite friendly with Bob Buckland from Swindon and Harold Balson from Earlston in Scotland. Both had joined the Bays as regulars, and were in the Regiment before I arrived.

Ronnie and I only saw each other occasionally these days. He was firmly established in 'B' Squadron office, and was obviously doing a good job. One day he told me he was going home on leave, to marry Emily. I had a round baby-face, and Ronnie christened me 'The Cherub'. Emily and I wrote to each other regularly and she began starting her letters 'Dear Cherub'. I was also being called 'Jackie' and everyone soon knew me by this name, which stuck to me for the rest of my army career.

One day on Salisbury Plain tragedy struck. A burly rugby player named Page was riding on the outside of a Stuart. This was nothing unusual, we often did it as we drove and changed drivers. This time the tank was travelling pretty fast, hit a bump and Page was thrown forward into its path. It ran over him. The driver had stopped and poor Page lay on his back with the track of the tank across his stomach. I was in another tank nearby, saw the accident and with others ran to the scene. Page was still conscious.

'For God's sake get this off me,' he said. But before anyone could make a move he had died. We were all very shaken by this terrible accident.

Occasionally we went by truck to Aldershot, about fifty miles away, passing Stonehenge on the way there and back. At Aldershot, a building was set up with replicas of tank turrets at one end, and at the other end a miniature rolling countryside with little tanks moving about on it. There were small guns in the turrets. In the turret would be someone acting as tank commander, and a gunner. According to strict army instructions, the commander gave an order something like this: 'Traverse right, traverse right, traverse right. Stop. German tank on the horizon at approximately 1,000 yards. Fire!'

We then shot at the miniature tanks. Later when there was a real German tank in front with guns blazing, the translation of this was: 'Over on the right. Can you see him, Jackie? Let him have it!'

At Aldershot they also had pistol and rifle ranges, where we practised. I was pretty good at the shooting, and my destiny was to be that of a gunner.

As we were in camp we daily watched the formations of bombers on their way to Germany and the German planes on their bombing missions to England. At night we could hear them too, but no bombs were ever dropped near us.

One night there was a heavy air raid on the city of Bristol, and next day we were sent to help clear up. Bombs had fallen in an area of shops and offices. Now they were piles of rubble. We searched for any victims who might be trapped, but found no one, and we helped to load the debris into lorries to be taken away. Something there left a lasting impression on me. In the middle of the ruins the Salvation Army had set up a table and were handing out free cups of tea. It was heartening to see the determined spirit of everyone there. That incident endeared the Salvation Army to me for the rest of my life.

At the end of October we made a long train journey to Linney Head, about five miles from Pembroke in South Wales. We were billeted in an old house near the cliff tops. A cold wind blew straight into the draughty house from the sea, and most of the time it rained. It was a desolate spot and we spent a miserable week there, firing the bigger guns out to sea. We were glad to get back to our tents near Warminster, but soon after our return to camp we were on the move again. This time it was to Tilford near Farnham in Surrey.

Categories

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