TO ALL MY CHILDREN
MY CAREER IN THE MILITARY
by Guy Cecil
During the summer of 1938 there had been talk of war against Hitler due to his demands in Europe. In October we all thought war was about to break out, so I went to the drill hall at Catford on the Bromley Road and joined the British Army. It was the 194th Battery of the 60th Regiment HAA (Heavy Anti-Aircraft) of the Territorial Army. Along with many other recruits we had to have a Medical Exam in a crowded room. They were all older than me as I was 17 years in July, and when my turn came I had to strip completely and there were sniggers all around the room. Until then I had never realized how under-developed I was, but in spite of that I passed the exam. I then had to sign an oath of allegiance to King George the V1th his heirs and successors, and then I was a full blown soldier and I went home with a couple of uniforms, woolen socks, boots, cap, steel helmet, all a perfect fit and showed them to my Mother with great pride who then promptly burst into tears. It is to be remembered this was only twenty years after the First World War that was still in her memory, and she did not fancy the idea of her 17yr. old son getting killed.
Chamberlain flew to see Hitler and his gang and came back in triumph holding a piece of paper that guaranteed “Peace in our time”. Nobody trusted Hitler and that gave us a breathing spell to churn out Hurricanes, Spitfires, bombers, ships, tanks, Radar and anti-aircraft guns. In the meantime we new members of the army had to attend the drill hall three evenings a week and every week-end and learn many things about the army and how to drill and train on the heavy guns as well as Lewis machine guns and rifles and how to use hand grenades. In August 1939 Von Ribbontrop flew to Moscow to see Stalin and his gang and signed a non-aggression pact and we all knew war was now inevitable and sure enough, on August 24th the whole army, navy and air force was mobilized and our battery was sent to a sand bagged gun site on Hayes Common near Bromley. To get to my unit I had to jump on a tram to Catford and I was thrilled when the conductor refused to accept the fare I offered him. In the meantime my Mother had been chasing me with Iris’s gym bag I used which contained all my army cleaning materials, which are essential. Soldiers were coming and going all over the place and she grabbed on to a soldier and told him to give this to Gunner Cecil. Over the loud-speaker at the Drill Hall I was told to report to the office and there was my gym bag in the hands of a stranger. He told me she was lucky he happened to be in the same unit and she was crying as she turned and ran home. The heavy guns were 3 inch as used in WW1 and we were all standing to, when on Sunday Sept.3rd Chamberlain announced over the radio that we were now at war with Germany, and we all cheered. Within a few weeks the battery was shipped over to France, and as I was only 18, I was not allowed to be sent overseas, so I had to bid farewell to my buddies I had come to know so well, and I was transferred, along with seven other immatures, to the 252nd Battery, 80th Regiment HAA City of Oxford which was stationed on gun sites near Bramley in Hampshire.
The battery consisted of an interesting mixture of University dons, servants who waited on them in their dining halls, clerks, tradesmen and a couple of butchers, and us. I had never seen such beautiful guns before – they were 3.7 inch mobile, which could be moved from site to site on any farmer’s field with great rapidity. During the months to come we trained and trained, mastering each different position on the guns, and on the height finders, the range finders and most importantly the predictors, which were really the first computers, which enabled us to predict what fuse to set on each shell before it was fired which anticipated where the enemy plane would be in 10, 15, 20, or 25 seconds depending on the range and the height. It was extremely complicated but I always enjoyed using it. There were six of us on the computer, and although every position was important, the number 4 had the greatest responsibility of predicting the fuse number. This was after feeding in the height, the range, the wind speed up there and the wind direction and after all this it was number 4 who had to actually figure out the fuse number and yell it to the command post who then gave the order to set the fuse, load the gun and fire. The number 4 also had to allow for the time it took for those three actions. For all this to work the enemy plane had to be at a constant speed and a constant course. We practiced all this during the winter months, known as the “phony war” and became impatient for action, but our C.O assured us we would see plenty of action next Spring and Summer. Boy, what a prophet he was. Just before Christmas I went down with a fever and was sent to a military hospital, which consisted of a large private house, which had just been commandeered, and was attended by two orderlies, and now and again an M.O would drop in to check on us. Thus I spent my first Christmas in the Army, away from home and thinking of my buddies on the gun site who were no doubt enjoying themselves with their turkey dinners and plenty of beer, so I felt really miserable and sorry for myself.
Soon after my discharge from hospital I was sent on a gunnery course for three weeks on Hayling Island, where we were taught ballistics and trajectories, which consisted mainly of mathematics, which had always been my weakest subject at Eltham College. How I passed my exam at the end of the course I shall never know, but when I returned to my unit I was looked upon as a gunnery expert and I was officially promoted from gunner to lance-bombardier. Those brand new stripes I had sewn on to my battle jacket meant more to me than any promotions in the future.
In order to kill time during the phony war we created a rugby team, and as I played at school and later for the Old Elthamians I joined the team. We were invited to play against Sandhurst Military College. We were well and truly beaten but after the match we were royally entertained in their beautiful mess hall, panelled and with silver trophies all over the place. We were also shown all over the College and their beautiful sleeping accommodation, lounges and libraries and then I compared all that with the miserable huts we lived in on a muddy gun site. We did not even have beds, so we slept on palliasses stuffed with straw. On one of my home leaves I came back with a pillow, and I slept in paradise. Some time later we were given real beds. Marvelous.
From time to time we were sent to firing camps on the coast where we practiced firing at a target towed by a plane and we always aimed at the target and not the plane, as we had been trained to do; if we had hit the plane we would have been right up the creek. It was at one of these firing camps in Wales that we were dragged out of bed at mid-night and were instructed to dig up all the guns and tow them to the railway station. Of course it was teeming with Welsh rain as we worked in the dark and eventually towed them to the station where we had to load them on to flat freight cars, which had been specially assembled and when that was all completed we were glad of a rest in the pouring rain. Within a few minutes we were given the order to unload all the guns and trucks and to tow them all back to the firing camp. War can be such fun. After doing our duty and making sure the guns were securely installed again, we were permitted to dry out and snatch a couple of hours sleep, and then consume a large hot breakfast. It was an hour or so after breakfast that an officer had the courtesy to tell us why we had been dragged out of bed and wasted a night of our short lives. It was in a sombre tone that he told us the guns were needed urgently in France to help our boys who were to be evacuated at Dunkerque, but by the time we had them all loaded on the train the Top Brass decided they would arrive too late as evacuation had already started. So that was that.
Back on our home site in Bramley we were then ordered to tow our guns to a gun site in the Portsmouth area to defend the most important Naval station in the Empire. We then
knew the fun was about to start and soon German spotter planes were overhead surveying and photographing all the port facilities and gun sites. It was there that we went into action for the first time and tried to scare off the Germans. A number of individual planes came over, but nothing serious happened until one of them dropped a bomb and missed his target and destroyed our local pub, which caused great consternation. We moved from site to site and then to Eastleigh near Southampton, the port where most of the ships arrived with food and supplies that was our lifeline and the Germans knew it. It was on this gun site that we shot down our first German plane a Heinkel 111, along with other gunners no doubt, and as I saw it come screaming out of the sky I felt sick, and I thought of the crew in there with young men like us who were now plunging to certain death. Then came the crash quite some distance away, and then we saw the big pall of black smoke. I think I was the only one on the site who did not cheer. A few planes continued to come over which we fired at, and then one day in early July the alarm sounded and the air raid sirens were wailing, and when we looked up we saw a mass of great big German bombers on their way to try and destroy England by bombing all the air fields. I could hardly believe what I saw and said to myself “You cheeky bastards” and so the Battle of Britain had now begun.
When I was first transferred to Bramley one of the first things I did was to report to the Quartermaster for new uniforms as I had grown out of mine. On the gun site at Eastleigh I had to keep going back to the Quartermaster for new uniforms and every time I turned up he said “What, you again”? So, I was still a growing lad when we went into action and qualified as a war veteran at the age of 18. Let’s not forget that many of the pilots in the Hurricanes and Spitfires were 18, 19 and 20 years of age. Air Marshall Dowding said we can only win the Battle of Britain if our young men kill their young men at the rate of four to one.
On my 19th birthday I was on spotting duty for two hours and a food parcel arrived from my Mother, and as I was not allowed to leave the command post my friends shouted at me that they had opened the parcel for me and were all enjoying my birthday cake, the bars of chocolate, the biscuits and everything else. All I could do was suffer in frustration until my tour of duty finished, and then I realized they had been kidding and we all shared it. I have also just remembered that when the war started we were issued with everything required to survive including razor brush and soap for shaving, but these were at the bottom of my kit bag and were never used until I was well over the age of 19. We were also issued with a “hussuf” [abbreviation for housewife] containing needle, thread and wool as we had to sew on our own buttons and darn our own socks.
When Winston Churchill broadcast to the British people he never lied or misled us the way modern leaders do today, but on the contrary, during our darkest hour he told us how dark it was, which we then managed to turn into “THEIR FINEST HOUR”.
The Battle of Britain was now in full swing and continued through that beautiful summer until September 15th when 185 German planes were shot down. We gunners were the only part of the British Army in action during the Battle of Britain as the rest of the army had been rescued at Dunkirk but all their guns trucks tanks and ammunition had been left behind in France. The pace of the battle was furious and as the Germans discovered and bombed our gun sites, we moved from one farmer’s field to another and assembled our guns. We slept in bell tents on our palliasses once again. It was during one of these raids at Eastleigh that I received a piece of shrapnel in my right cheek and still have a faint scar to this day, but it was not faint then. I was rushed to hospital and for the next few weeks I walked around with a thick pad and bandage on my face. I never received or expected anything but if I had been in the American Army I would have been awarded the Purple Heart, as that is what they get even for a scratch.
The battle continued every day and every night, at times our gun barrels became so hot we poured cold water down them and watched them steam, we heard later this was not such a good idea. During all the times we were in action on the guns I can honestly and truthfully say I never experienced fear, as we were so highly trained and at such a pitch as we carried out our duties knowing exactly what we had to do. By this time my attitude had changed and I no longer felt sick when an enemy aircraft was shot down. These men were out to destroy my country, family and friends, and I got the greatest satisfaction when all four guns on our site blazed away at them and I felt I was doing something useful. Our duties were rotated, and when I was on the guns it was extremely satisfying to be able to slam a shell up the spout and then fire the gun and keep repeating it until the cease fire was ordered. Between raids we were told to stand down and return to our huts, but on warm dry nights many of us would lie on the concrete floor beside the guns, using our helmets as pillows, and have a snooze as we knew there would be another raid. When the next alarm sounded we were already there and those in the huts had to leave their warm beds, get dressed and then run like hell to their posts. On Sunday mornings a Padre would turn up from nowhere and lay out his paraphernalia in one of our huts where we would all have to assemble, as we listened to him telling us it was a sin to kill, to love our enemies, and to offer the other cheek when struck. When the alarm sounded we would all rush helter-skelter to our posts and start firing away trying to kill enemy air-crew until ordered to cease fire and then stand down. That meant returning to our “church” where the Padre continued to tell us not to kill and to love our enemy. I then imagined German Padres over there telling their young flock the same thing, and so the war carried on. I wondered who would win this war, those who prayed the hardest, or those who fought the hardest ? One day I was issued a local leave pass to have a bit of a break, and as I was walking through the streets of Eastleigh the air raid sirens sounded and every body in the streets disappeared. I was there all alone as the bombers were overhead and I then experienced fear as I did not know where to go or what to do, so I threw myself down in the gutter and stayed there shaking until the all clear sounded and the streets were suddenly full of people staring at me sympathetically. I then rushed into the nearest pub and had a stiff drink.
It is amazing how the brain works and at times does not work. During one of the raids on our gun site the hut in which I lived was blown up, and if I had not been on the guns I would not be here today, and nor would any of you. Believe it or not I had completely forgotten this until a few years ago when I received a letter from an old buddy who shared the hut with many others. His name was Charlie King, a great pianist, and somehow he traced my address in Canada, and he reminded me of the time when our hut was hit as we were on the guns. It then all came back to me, and I could not figure out how I had forgotten it. I still have his letter in my album
During the Battle of Britain we fought in close co-operation wit