Here are some sample vignettes from the book, which I hope will give a flavour of the whole.
Fresh from radar training in 1941, Eric returned to Thames Estuary.
London suffered its heaviest raid yet on the night of 16th April. 685 bombers dropped 890 tonnes of high explosive and over 150,000 incendiary bombs causing 1,179 deaths and 2,233 serious injuries. Five enemy aircraft were shot down. Even this assault was surpassed on 19th when 712 aircraft delivered over 1,000 tonnes of high explosive for the first and only time in a single raid on the UK. Over 1,200 people were killed and 1,000 seriously injured. Poor weather and the sheer scale of the attack combined to overwhelm the defences: just four raiders failed to return.
“We had the most hectic session ever down here. I reached Gravesend just as the sirens were sounding and was at the camp just as the raid was approaching its maximum – I went straight over to the transmitter and stayed there for the next six hours until a kind soul relieved me. The planes came in so thick and fast that Gun Operations Room just couldn’t cope with them by plotting barrages and told us to go over to individual control which was very helpful as we weren’t transmitting to the predictor. So we just fed them information by phone and they banged away on that system. Something will have to be done soon about countering a mass attack. At present we can do damn all and we are all fed to the teeth about it.”
Seventeen high explosive bombs, two parachute mines and about 1,000 incendiaries landed around the regimental HQ, damaging the roof of the drill hall but without casualties. None of which dissipated tension between the ‘intellectuals’ of the fire-control team and the horny-handed gunners.
“An NCO showing another round put his head into our hut yesterday, viewed the recumbent ‘personnel’ and said ‘THIS is the bloody infirmary!’ They hold a very poor view of GL, chiefly because we are outside their jurisdiction. Sort of fox and the grapes.”
Intensive mobility training at Eastleigh brought a step change in commitment and professionalism.
They were in for a gruelling mix of operational manning, battle exercises, mobility training in the surrounding country – then back to camp for parades and inspections.
“Although the training is very hard and exacting it is invigorating after such a static existence – and I think we would have been happier if we had tackled this sort of thing earlier. Bringing the GL station into action and dismantling same we can now accomplish in about 12 minutes each way, and so far nobody has collapsed in the process. To think we used to consider two hours very good time! The secret is in working by numbers – at the double – and in perfect unison.”
This was a Damascene conversion: just four months earlier he wrote; “I have never seen anything so damn silly as the drill book that someone has been ingenious enough to invent for the benefit of the GL. A lot of damn rigmarole about erecting the instrument by numbers which we have to learn by heart. Wonder who draws a salary for concocting this sort of rubbish – such as numbers 2 and 3 unhooking the power unit from the lorry, no.3 orders ‘Drive on’ and the lorry moves forward ten yards and halts!! (it generally gets bogged anyway). There’s a hefty book crammed full of this ‘bull’.” In 1942 the description must refer to Mk 2 gun laying (GL) radar with its separate transmitter and receiver cabins, large antennas to go on the roof of each, and separate generator trailers. Twelve minutes was quite an achievement.
The Normandy campaign had its entertaining moments before the regiment was assigned to support 6th Airborne and things became a bit more strenuous.
“… It was funny when that beer arrived last weekend. There was all of a sudden a great shouting and bawling and running to and fro and I made a dive for my Sten under the impression it was a Rommel breakthrough. There were already some guns blazing away quite near and some engineers letting off some explosive a couple of fields away but the row 206 kicked up surpassed both. It even brought the Troop Commander out of a private place in a great hurry, looking most hurt and very undignified.”
“The variety of canned foods is really amazing. We had meat pudding the other day – some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Some of the fellows think their wives will get wise to it after the war – or hand a 48 hour ration pack to their husbands and clear off for the weekend.”
Despite the reassuring tone of the letters it wasn’t all safe. On 8th July, at the height of Charnwood, 206 Battery supplied working parties to bring ammunition up to the front.
“We have also paid a visit to the front line on an ammo replenishing run. It was most interesting to proceed right through the areas of the recent fighting, but very depressing to see the extent of the devastation. One small town was literally razed to the ground. As one person said ‘Cor! We’ve liberated this place all right. House by house’ which about puts that overworked expression where it belongs. The Germans are fighting for every yard of ground.”
After the German collapse in Normandy and hectic chase across France there were wild hopes that the war was almost over. then the North-West Europe campaign bogged down. Literally.
“… On this occasion we were as filthy a couple of specimens as ever were. I had taken a couple of tumbles during a winching operation – hauling a trailer out of a veritable bog by means of a steel chain operated by the driver of the towing truck. Kilner had doubled up in mirth at our appearance, and asked me from the sanctuary of his Jeep if it was for my complexion. I’ve never seen mud like this – where vehicles go in up to their axles and stick fast. Along comes a GTV [Gun Towing Vehicle] to pull it out and slap! Into another trough it goes, and then up comes another to the rescue – with the same results, until they resemble a lot of elephants writhing in a quicksand and roaring in agony. It brings one to the point of boiling rage – and then to laughter, you can’t help it. One of the vehicles was being pulled out inch by inch, everybody holding their breath and praying, when suddenly with a terrific crack the towing hook came off, pulled clean off. For some reason everybody who until then had been on edge and swearing copiously exploded with laughter. ‘All the fun of the fair’, ‘Last shot rings the bell’, ‘Hand the gentleman that flower vase’. Everybody rolled in mirth at something approaching calamity and the driver removed his cap and bowed. This at a spot where it was pretty unhealthy to linger!”