In 1942 1 joined the Home Guards. I made my way to the Territorial Drill Hall in
Harrow Road. This was where Freddy (my brother) had joined up back in 1937-8, it was the home of a battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles. I was directed to a sergeant who look my particulars and had a good look at my all-important green card. I was told to report that Saturday morning to a car park behind
Selfridges departmental store in
Oxford Street, to do my basic training. Saturday morning I made my way there to join another forty or fifty men, all new recruits. In charge was a sergeant and some corporals. They were in the Regular Army. It was not long before they rounded us up like sheep and marched us up and down going through basic foot drill. After a midday break served from the back of a 15 cwt truck “which introduced me for the first time to army cooking”, late afternoon we were dismissed and told to report back next day Sunday. As I was now in the Home Guard I did not have to work compulsory over time.
Sunday was bitter cold as I reported back to the parade ground; we only drilled for a short while. Three or four army corporals then joined us, they set up tables, and from the back of a truck they took some old rifles which they laid on the tables. We were split up into groups and spent the rest of the day being taught everything about cleaning them and how they worked, we must have taken them to bits and put them back together a hundred times. The rifles themselves were old I.J.S.A First World War models: they used different sized ammunition from our rifles, but a rifle of any kind could kill. When we were dismissed that evening we were told to report back the following Sunday for rifle drill, then we were told to report back to our various units on the Monday to start being trained by our Regiment N.C.O.s.
TRAINING AND TO THE PLATOON
I was really enjoying myself. I had two parades a week also on Sunday morning; this would change when I was trained and allocated to Platoon. We were instructed in most infantry weapons of the day,
Northover anti-tank weapon,
Sten gun, and infantry tactics and unarmed combat to name but a few. A lot of time was spent on anti-gas training, the lessons of the First World War was still fresh in people’s minds. We had a rifle range underneath the drill hall where we used .22 rifles. Most of us were good shots and coveted the crossed rifle badge you could wear on your sleeve when you passed. I was keen and in about three months was allocated to a Platoon and a rifle section At last I was a soldier even if it was only a part-time one, now I went out on street patrols, manned strong points and when we went home after parades we took our rifles. I felt great when I went to bed and saw my rifle standing in the corner. One evening my Platoon Sergeant took me to one side to look at the notice board, there was my name Pte. Phillips promoted to Lance Corporal, he smiled and gave me two chevrons and said make sure you sew them on by the next parade. When my Dad saw me next parade night as L/Cpl Phillips I got one of his rare looks of approval. After the next parade night it was customary for the N.C.O.s to join our Platoon Commander in the bar for a drink, the first night he looked at me and said, “What are you drinking, Phillips?" I did not drink or know what to ask for, but I had heard the other N.C.O.s ask for a bitter, so that’s what I asked for. I drank it, it tasted like vinegar, but it was the beginning of a stormy relationship.
I was still enjoying my work - what with long hours at work, lack of sleep, Home Guard duty and food rationing, everyone was beginning to feel the strain, but still a cheerful mood prevailed. I had been put to work with an old tradesman who specialised in making air intake ducts These fitted on the leading edge of bomber wings to direct the air flow through oil coolers. He cut various peculiar shapes out of aluminium, my job was to heat these bits over a gas ring to make them soft. He had an old pair of ladies' hair curling tongs and he then twisted tucks into the metal with the tongs; then he hammered the wrinkles smooth, they were made in two halves and when gas-welded together looked like a big teardrop with a window in the top. My job was to clean the welds and rivet on brackets and rubber draft excluders. The two halves were welded together by another friend of mine, he was a Welshman and an ardent Communist who only had one hand as he had lost the other one fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He taught me to weld aluminium using oxygen and acetylene gas.
I had a friend in the Home Guard,
Jimmy Wilson. The Home Guard had Regimental dances which were held in the
Porchester Hall this was not very far from the
Royal Oak underground station. We had to go in uniform complete and with army boots their full complement of studs, it was more like skating.
I was still enjoying the Home Guard. I was in an Infantry section in charge of a machine gun. Our area of responsibility to defend in the event of an invasion was from
Maida Vale North to
Hyde Park and
Buckingham Palace. There our last stand would be; in that area we had already dug slit trenches in
Kensington Gardens but thank goodness it did not come to that.
THE EXERCISE AT BAGSHOT
Some weekend we were told to parade early Saturday morning under the clock at Waterloo Station in full marching order. We then went by troop train to
Aldershot for an exercise against a regular Army unit and to fire our wonderful collection of ancient weapons on the army’s long ranges, it was like the first world war all over again. As soon as we arrived we were allocated tents; these were in rows. We were then put to work digging draining trenches round the tents, then into the main ditch as it had been raining heavily; we were then marched to a farmyard where we were met by a Regular Army sergeant who introduced us to "a donkeys breakfast”. First he gave us a canvas sack; this was shaped like a coffin and had a slit in it. We were taken to a pile of straw to fill it. When these were placed round the tent it looked like a box of processed cheese, a space being left round the tent pole so we could stack our weapons around it. In the evening we ate in the open from our mess tins sitting on the ground, the food cooked by Regular Army cooks on a field kitchen; this must have come from the Boer war. We spent the afternoon on the ranges, firing rifles, Sten guns. Lewis guns and throwing live hand grenades for the first time.
The last few hours of the day we spent firing this gun - if we had had to fire it in anger we would have killed more of us than the enemy. I think it was called the
Northover projector. It was basically a piece of drain pipe with a firing mechanism, mounted on wheels; it would fire hand grenades and glass bottles of self- igniting phosphorous. These were fired by an explosive charge being pushed down the barrel and when the bottle hit something hard like a tank it burst into a big ball of fire; but we were firing into a muddy field and some hit a stone and blew up whilst some just lay there. The ones that lay there had to be made safe, so two or three Regular sergeants formed us up into a line across the field spaced out and walked slowly looking for these very unstable duds; when you found one you shouted out as loud as you could "FIND!” Every one stood stock still. A sergeant who had been following up behind came up and stuck a red flag by the side of it. Then we continued on until the end of the field had been reached; when we looked back across the field it had a thick sprinkling of red flags. The sergeants who were in the Royal Engineers gathered them up into heaps and then detonated them. They went off in a mighty fire ball and although I was a distance away the heat was terrific. Back in our tents that night lying in the dark all our hands glowed from the phosphorus from the bottles we had handled. It looked like a Halloween party for skeletons.
The last night before we went back to London we had to take part in an all-night tactical exercise. Our part was to attack a Regular Army unit defending a big farm made into a series of strong points. We set off in moonlight - and I still remember the moonlight making patterns on the ground as we moved through the woods. We had an umpire with us, he was a senior N.C.O. and had a white arm band and carried a clip board. The idea was that if the umpire thought you had been killed or wounded he took your name and you took no farther part in the proceedings. As soon as I twigged that I was soon dead; I made my way back to my tent after having my name taken and was told I was very brave to move forward like that. I was learning to be an old soldier fast. I pinched a half tray of sausages as I went by the cookhouse area, these I shared with the rest of my mates who had had the sense to get wounded early on. On our return to London we were sun burnt and fit and had a better idea how of real army worked. But I had a shock on my first parade back in the drill hall. I was called in front of my platoon commander, a
Captain Talbot; he said the role of the H.G. was changing and some younger members were being transferred to the
and then attached to the Royal Artillery where we would be trained as gunners on anti aircraft guns within Anti-Aircraft Command.
GAS TRAINING AT WORMWOOD SCRUBS
I paraded for Home Guard training one Sunday morning when we were told that our platoon was going to take part in a simulated exercise as part of our gas training. We were taken by truck to the back of
Wormwood Scrubs prison where there was a large open area where people walked their dogs and children played, but now used for military training. We were taken to a low building, there the Regular Army took over. The inside of the building was bare except for a small table in the middle. Once inside we all stood round the table and were instructed to put our gas masks in the alert position, which meant it was swung round and fixed high on your chest. The instructor said he would put his gas mask on, then he would put a match to a pill on the table which would only smoulder a bit; we would smell nothing, then after two minutes he would sound the gas alarm by sounding a rattle; we then had to put our gas masks on, the door would be opened, we then had to run to a spot about three hundred yards away. After all this happened and the door swung open, I ran with the rest of my section; we had not gone far before we were all in distress, staggering about like drunks, some being sick in their gas masks. We had been told to look out for this happening to anyone near you, then his gas mask had to be pulled of as quickly as possible. No one got to the meeting place, we all allowed to lie around and recover for the rest of the training period. A tough way to make a point, but very effective.
BECOMING AN ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUNNER
It was now December 1943 and the time had come for me to report for training as an A.A GUNNER; I had to report to a gun park that was in a remote part of
Hampstead Heath. The training would be for four weeks, two nights a week, also all weekends. I had already changed my cap badge for one of the
Middlesex Regiment, also taken off my Infantry number identification shoulder badges and replaced them with the shoulder identification badge of Anti-Aircraft Command, which was a bow and arrow pointing to the sky on a red back ground.
We were to be trained by regular gunners of the R.A. I was one of fifty or so young Home Guards to be trained, the Guard Room was at the beginning of the training area. There were rows of lecture huts, three or four guns with their ammunition locker for us to practice on, also along one side were two Bofors gun manned by the R.A. these were our defences against any attacking, low flying German sneak raids. We were soon divided up into squads and the training started immediately.
The first week was spent in the lecture huts learning the theory and how the guns worked; it was obvious that they wanted us to be trained as soon as possible. The reason was that the role of the Home Guard in the past was to fight against invasion of our own country, now the planning for our invasion of the European mainland was well advanced it was no longer needed. The planners thought that when the invasion started, the German Air force would counter-attack the only way they could, by mass bombing, that is why some younger members of the Home Guard would be in place to man every A.A. gun available.
“Z” gun itself was basically engineered, the gun was a large metal disc on the ground, on it was placed the gun itself; this was two large brackets between which were two long rails these could be pointed up and down by turning a wheel; the whole gun could be rotated 360 per cent by pushing on a bar sticking out of the side. There was a crew of two. I was made number one and wore a pair of ear phones and got instructions which came from an underground bunker. These bearings and angles were relayed by radar, but we were never told this as it was still a secret. The first order I received was the raiders' height in feet. I shouted out to my number two on the opposite of the gun "LOAD!!" He ran to the ammunition locker, pulled out a six foot long rocket, slid it onto a rack along the side of me, I turned the nose ring until a line was on the right number, shouted out ready, he slid it up onto one of the racks, pulled it back so it made electric contact with the firing mechanism, he then did the same with the second rocket. We both then stood by for the next lot of orders, first I received the number of degrees to rotate the gun to, when the pointer reached the right number I clamped the gun. Then I got the angle to point the gun at, I shouted to my number two Q.E. so and so degrees, he turned a wheel until the gun pointed at the right angle and clamped it. I was told to stand by; I had my hand on the firing handle awaiting the order to fire, I always prayed that order would not come: it never did. I never fired that gun in anger, the next string of orders could be a new bearing, these could be changed over and over again until the order to unload and stand down came. This was the time of greatest danger. We had to unload the rockets off the racks, reset the fuses to safe then wait for a Senior N.C.O from the Royal Artillery to inspect everything before you could be formed up and marched for an army breakfast before getting the bus home, and then on to
Randells to be a sheet metal worker.
You might say, how is it I remember all that after all those years? It is because we did the gun drills over and over again until we could do them in our sleep, also I have a remarkable memory for events, technical methods, and procedures, also I was young and mad keen. Now I cannot remember, phone numbers, birthdays or math formulae, or what I had for lunch yesterday.
The whole idea behind the
‘Z’ gun was that there were one hundred guns close together in a big field all arriving and exploding in the same patch of sky at the same time. I had looked up at the sky during air raids and seen what looked like a cauldron of boiling stars. I wondered how it was done and now I knew, and I could do it. By February 1944 we had completed our training and the time had come to for us new gunners to complete a course of live firing; once we had done that we would become operational and be allocated to a Troop and a gun to serve. A train took us to a Royal Artillery range somewhere on the south coast; we realised when looking out of the train window as we sped through the countryside that the invasion must be soon to take place. We were travelling through areas that civilians could not go, along side roads, hedge rows, anywhere there was space, were rows of bombs piled high like big pyramids, boxes of ammunition looking like walls, all covered by camouflage netting or under trees, there were fields covered with tanks and armoured vehicles of all types.
We were marched to our sleeping quarters, then onto the cookhouse for a meal (eaten from our mess tins), then to a field. There was going to be no rest, we had to fire as much live ammunition as we could. The field was the same as our gun park at Hampstead Heath. After being allocated a gun we did our check drill to see that everything was operational, went through the procedure and loaded with live ammunition for the first time, with my hand on the firing lever I shut my eyes the order came over my ear phones "FIRE!!" Down went the lever, the noise smoke and fire of 200 rockets streaking away from one small field had to be experienced to be believed, it was like being trapped inside a volcano - the first time I fired that bloody gun I nearly wet my pants. The rockets exploded high over the sea. I did not see them explode as we were busy reloading. We fired another two or three times. The instructors must have been satisfied with us as we went through the make-safe and stand-down drill, then the rest of the day on lectures. The next day gun drill, then we were marched in small squads along the cliff tops where there was mounted an eight barrel machine gun that had been removed from the rear turret of a bomber. It was hydraulically operated; so the first thing you had to do was start up a petrol engine to provide power. It was for use against low flying aircraft and we all got the chance to fire a few bursts over the sea at seagulls, then a meal and the train ride back to London.
AN A-A GUNNER ON HAMPSTEAD HEATH
I had to be on duty two nights a week at
Hampstead Heath and now that I had completed my firing training was operational. I had to leave home at five-thirty, the first thing we did after muster parade was more gun drill until at dusk and after a meal we were marched to a very old but beautiful mansion. This had its stairs and floor covered up with ply wood to protect it from damage that would be caused by the steel studs of our army boots, the rooms were empty but in each room lying on the floor were a number of things that looked like large bread trays. These were for us to sleep on. We lay down fully clothed with gas masks at the alert positioned on our chests, your tin hat was your pillow, there were six to twelve men to a room, each room lit by a dim light, outside on the landings was a large electric bell. The gun park was a half mile down the road. When the alarm bell went we all jumped to our feet, rushed down the stairs and galloped down the hill to the gun park. We looked like a herd of stampeding cattle; it could have been extremely funny if it had not been so serious. We did this in snow, rain, into spring, we loaded and unloaded, were given bearings after bearings, we could hear gunfire and bombs exploding in the distance, many times I had my hand on the firing lever, only told to stand by and then stand down. I never did get to fire that gun in anger.
I was on duty two or three days before “D” day, we manned the guns all night, a N.A.A.F.I, van came two or three times during the night so we did get a break. We heard lots of air activity, but we just stood to all night with no gun fire; the expected German counter- attack of mass bombing did not materialise. After “D” day we still went on duty but we knew our role in the war would soon he over. On the sixth of September 1944 the blackout restrictions were relaxed and all training for the Home Guard ceased.