The First Lap
The first chapter of Bill Brown’s memoirs.
The slamming of carriage doors, shouts of ‘stand clear’ and the shrill whistle of the Guard signalled the imminent departure of the 1000 hours train to Glasgow. To a background of escaping steam and a couple of hoots from the engine, the long line of coaches began to move on their long journey to Scotland, to the accompaniment of clanking chains and sporadic jerks and bumps, as buffers and couplings took the strain. The platform of Euston Station began to slide by with wives, fiancees, friends and other well-wishers running alongside the coaches, grasping outstretched hands and exchanging final messages, until the ramp at the end of the platform forced them to let go. For as long as possible hands were waved from train windows, finally subsiding when the last coach cleared the platform to join the track that led to the North. Euston Station passed from view.
Settling back in my corner seat, I looked out at the ever-changing scene of suburban London and one that I had gazed upon so often before in happier times. The well-tended gardens of those trackside houses had given way to drab, colourless areas with unsightly mounds in the centres of the gardens, covering the air raid shelters. Unpleasant reminders of the War. Familiar sights much altered but still recognisable, although there was something missing. For a few moments I tried to think just what it was. Then, it struck me: there were no children. Much of London had become a ‘childless’ zone, the children having been evacuated. Those happy days came tumbling back as I recalled so many similar journeys I had made as a child and then as a schoolboy on my way to my relatives’ farms in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, when those garden fences would have been lined with children waving at the passing trains.
For a while I relived those carefree days. The excited anticipation of spending long summer days playing with my cousins in the haystacks, helping to load the hay on to the horse drawn wagons, feeding the animals and going into the fields to help with the pea picking and helping my Aunt to do the daily egg collection and feed the chickens and then, of course, the highlight of the day, a ride on one of those gentle giants, the Shire Horses. For awhile I continued my surveillance of suburban London and its gradual replacement by the lush green fields that only England can produce. Unconsciously, I heaved a deep sigh, oblivious of my surroundings.
My immediate neighbour in the carriage, an ATS Officer, broke into my reverie, “you looked miles away”, an obviously interrogative comment that required a verbal answer not just a silent nod of the head. I smiled and agreed with her observation, adding that I had indeed been many miles away and in an era many, many years ago, wallowing mentally in nostalgia recalling happy days of my childhood and youth and holidays spent on farms. She nodded sympathetically, saying she could well understand.
The Junior Commander had broken the ice and soon the whole compartment was exchanging anecdotes and memories of happier days. The Royal Naval Commander, a regular career Officer, started the ball rolling recalling boyhood days at school and how he came to be a Naval Officer. He had joined the Navy straight from school, spent some years at sea and after a spell at Dartmouth, he passed on to the Royal Naval Engineering College at Keyham, emerging as a fully fledged Engineer Officer.
All the other occupants of the carriage had stories to tell. The Army Officer, also a career Officer, was a Cavalry man and had taken part in many Royal and official parades mounted on his four footed friend, but with the outbreak of war his mount was exchanged for a tank. The rest of the occupants were Reservists, Territorials and volunteers and all had been in a wide variety of occupations in civilian life.
The journey passed pleasantly, thanks to the ATS Officer, and cross chit chat was the order of the day but, of course, not one of us even hinted at our present role in the war effort. But underlying all this talk, one could sense an undercurrent of apprehension. The talking had been a front, a device to divert our minds and thoughts from the horrors of the moment. Beyond those green fields on this warm and sunny June day, indescribable acts of barbarism were being carried out by an evil sub-human regime that could ultimately engulf the whole World. It had to be stopped. Inevitably the conversation had begun to flag but thankfully our first long non-stop run had drawn to a close and we were now making frequent stops at stations. Exchanges of good wishes and good luck helped to paper over the lapses in conversation.
Preston station and we lost two of our travelling companions, an Army Major and a Second Lieutenant. At our next stop, Carlisle, we lost two more, one being the friendly ATS Officer who had contributed so much to making our journey a little pleasanter. She would have made a good psychologist and I wondered if that is what she was in ‘civvy’ life.
Four now remained in the carriage to finish the journey to Glasgow. I idly tried to hazard a guess on their final destination. The WAAF Officer was probably heading for Coatbridge where the Royal Air Force had a large Maintenance Unit. The other RAF type, a two ringer aircrew, was probably destined for one of the airfields defending Glasgow and the Clyde shipyards, or maybe Coastal Command. The Royal Naval Commander would be heading for the Naval base on the Clyde, probably to join a convoy escort ship or maybe a ship that has been in for repairs. I smiled inwardly, I’ll bet he doesn’t guess that I, an Air Force type, was also joining a ship of His Majesty’s Navy.
We were now passing through the outskirts of Glasgow and a few minutes after 2000 hours the long, heavily laden train drew to a stop in Glasgow Central Station. Some time before we came to a halt Servicemen and Women had begun to collect their kit bags and accoutrements and the doors opened before we came to a stop. Within minutes of arriving the platform was a seething mass of humanity shoving and pushing as they headed for the barriers. We four waited for a while until the initial rush had eased off and then, lifting our bags and cases from the racks, we stepped out on to the platform and made our way to the barrier with comparative ease. Passing through on to the concourse, we paused for a moment to say farewell to each other and exchange good wishes and then we parted. I dawdled for a few minutes watching my three companions go their several ways, before disappearing into the crowd. Ships that pass in the night.
I turned to resume my own journey. Making enquiries I found that the next stage of my journey was another train from St Enoch’s Station, which was apparently about 500 yards from Central Station. I made my way to St Enoch’s and with about an hour and a half to kill, I deposited my cases in the left luggage office and went out into the street to explore the immediate vicinity of the station. After a few minutes walk I found myself on the banks of the Clyde. As ever, the Clyde was a hive of activity with fussy little tug boats going up and down, either helping a large ship to dock or escort another down stream towards the Firth of Clyde. Busy little Clyde ‘Puffers’ snaked in and out of the heavy concentration of shipping. Vessels of all shapes and sizes were there with their vital and essential cargoes of food and machines of war. Others were passing down river to join convoys about to set sail across the ‘Pond’ to face Hunter-Killer packs of German U-boats. Submarine activity in the North Atlantic was at its peak and our shipping losses were dangerously high. I marvelled and admired the bravery of those civilian sailors of the Merchant Navy who risked their lives, their all, to bring us the very essentials of living, of our existence. Words cannot express the admiration of those gallant seamen and we shall owe them a debt beyond repayment and I can only hope that their courage and sacrifices will not be forgotten in the years to come.
The Clyde, home to the finest engineering skills in the World, lay there in front of me. To those shipbuilders and marine engineers we also owe a debt. Their skills in building ships to cope with enemy action were there for all to see. Those skills had managed to bring home many a crippled ship that, of a lesser build, would have sunk with all hands. I wondered just what the World would be like when all this was over. Would the rest of the World appreciate our efforts and sacrifices to rid the World of the evils of the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo alliance? I watched more large ships going downstream to join a convoy forming off the Firth of Clyde, before setting sail to face the dangers of the North Atlantic. The scene before me triggered off thoughts of my own future. I was posted to a ship, so it would seem logical that, sooner or later, I would be directly involved with Naval warfare. I looked at my watch, I had better make my way back to St Enoch’s Station to catch my train to Troon, the destination railway station on my travel warrant.
Collecting my luggage from the left luggage office, I walked on to the platform from which the Troon train departed. It was waiting at the platform and was, apparently, not very full. I easily found a first class compartment and hoisting my case on to the luggage rack, settled back in a corner seat. A few more passengers joined but only a solitary Serviceman, an Army Corporal, was among them. I had about ten minutes to wait and although it was now almost 2130 hours, it was still quite light. At last the slamming of doors and the familiar Guard’s whistle and we were off quickly, clearing suburban Glasgow and out into the open. At the following two stops the Army Corporal left the train and so did a number of civilians. I think I was now the only one left on the train.
Alone with my thoughts, they turned to my posting and my future and what it had in store for me. I was still completely mystified by my posting to a Royal Naval ship. Again, the question – what sort of ship was she. An Aircraft Carrier was at least connected with aircraft and so was I, but an RAF Signals Officer aboard a Carrier? Did not seem likely really. Maybe, of course, some sort of liaison involving RN, RAF aerial co-operation. It didn’t seem to make sense, but what else? I could see no alternative – battleships – hardly, destroyers – no, frigates, minesweepers, coastal defence vessels – all no. Coastal Defence and Coastal Command already worked closely together. Maybe, but it seemed unlikely. I gave up. I would find out soon enough. I settled back and tried to think of other things – very difficult with my mind in its present hyper-active state.
I tried to remember what I had been told about procedure when boarding a Royal Naval ship and the courtesies that had to be observed after I had boarded and was staying for a time or extended period. I would have to salute as I stepped aboard from the gangway and if I had to be conveyed from jetty to the ship I would have to observe and conform to boat routine – whatever that was. Again, a salute at the top of the boarding ladder, before stepping to the ship’s deck. I would also have to remember to salute the Quarter Deck if I had occasion to go on it. Once again, I decided to give my brain a rest and leave what was to come to – well, play it by ear. After all, there was really nothing I could do about it.
The hour’s journey to Troon drew to a close and we entered Troon Station. For part of the journey I had been able to see the Firth of Clyde and the many ships dotted about on it. A few RN ships but nothing remotely like an aircraft carrier. Ah, possibly in Troon harbour. We came to rest and lifting my case down from the rack I stepped down on to the platform. I was the only passenger alighting and the train did not waste any time. Within a minute or two it was on the move again, it’s red tail light finally disappearing round a curve in the track. I looked around for an RTO, most stations had a Regimental Transport Officer, but Troon seemed totally devoid of such a person. I looked around for a Porter, or some other employee of the Railway, without luck. It was then I noticed a glimmer of light from under a door.
I gave a knock and entered through the usual light lock and finally I was in the old waiting room, to see an Army Officer reading a paper with his feet stretched on to another chair. he looked up and I saluted, explained my presence and, after being satisfied that he was the RTO, I handed over my documents for checking. Satisfied, he returned them to me and told me that he had only been at Troon for a couple of days and it was expected that Troon would soon be coping with a very considerable troop movements. It was going to be a very busy station. That was very interesting to me. I asked him about HMS Dundonald. He was very cagey and said I would find out soon enough. He turned from me and addressed himself to getting me on the last leg of my journey – hopefully.
He made a phone call to some distant ‘Duty Officer’, to whom he gave some of my details. Some instructions were presumably passed to him and, with a final goodbye, he replaced the receiver and turned to me. Telling me to make myself comfortable, as I had about half an hour to wait for my transport. He was not very communicative and confined himself strictly to the very basic instructions and information that I needed to know and settled down to continue reading his paper. I was quite pleased when a khaki clad figure eventually entered and, after a smart salute, said he was to collect a Flying Officer Brown. The Army Captain examined the man’s papers and, satisfied that he was who he said he was, indicated me, “that’s Flying Officer Brown”.
The Army Corporal came over to me and lifted my luggage saying, “the truck is outside Sir, just follow me”. I thanked him and with a farewell salute to the RTO, I followed the Corporal out to the 15 cwt truck standing at the door of the station. He hoisted my bags aboard and I went round to the passenger door and was about to get aboard when I thought I had better check up. He had my name and rank but how come I was being picked up in an Army truck with an Army Corporal driver and supposed to be reporting to a Royal Naval ship. “Corporal, you have got my name right, but just where are we going”?. “Auchengate Camp, Sir”, he replied. That confused me even more. “Hold on Corporal, I am posted to a Royal Naval ship, not an Army camp”. “Auchengate Camp is your destination Sir, but I am afraid I cannot tell you any more”. I got in the truck and decided that I would have to wait to find out what it was all about. I did think of checking his ID documents but remembered that the RTO had already done that and was apparently satisfied with his credentials. Anyway, I had got my side arms if there was any funny business.
I settled back and the truck drew away from the station down a slope to the main street of the town of Troon, a shop lined thoroughfare with a number of shop window shoppers peering through the criss cross strips of brown paper pasted across the glazing to reduce the effects of splintering spattering of glass in an air raid. Not that the shops had much to offer in these utility days. We soon reached the end of the shopping area and joined a main road. No signposts or any sort of identification at all, so I was still no wiser as to our destination and the driver could never be accused of careless talk. All I could get out of him was that our journey time would be about 10-12 minutes.
We arrived at Auchengate Camp, some two or three miles from Troon and slowing down we turned left off the main road to be faced with a boom across the entrance to a collection of Army type wooden huts, that stretched into the distance. Drawing up, one of the Army guards, fully armed and backed up by two others similarly equipped, came round to the passenger door and asked for my Identity Card. He examined it closely and then asked me to step down and accompany him to the Guard Room which, although not yet dark, had a pin head blackout light hanging out over the heavily blacked out doorway. Up the couple of steps we stopped for a moment and the Guard and I went into a light lock, the outer door being closed before we entered the main room of the hut.
Opening the inner door, I entered a well lit room containing a table, a couple of chairs, a filing cabinet and telephone. Behind the table a figure in khaki battle dress with head down was writing something. He looked up as we entered. A pleasant looking chap, another Army type I supposed, but with no chevrons or other indications of his rank on his arms. Suddenly, I realised that on his epaulettes he was wearing a double wavy Navy gold ring of a Lieutenant, Royal Navy. A little belatedly I came to attention and saluted. Just the merest smile at the corners of his mouth.
He looked at my Identity Card and then asked me for my posting instructions and several other bits of bumpf which I had to carry. He examined them very carefully and asked one or two questions, checking my travel warrant and confirming my last assignment. At last, apparently satisfied, he returned my various documents and then, as if reading my thoughts, he said “You’d better get your head down tonight and report to your Commanding officer tomorrow, a Wing Commander Strutt”. The name rang a bell but further thought was interrupted by the Sub-Lieutenant asking the Guard to direct my driver to Block B, Cabin 3. He turned to me, “this is only a temporary accommodation for tonight. You will be fixed up with permanent quarters tomorrow”. With a final cheerio from him and a departing salute from me, I left him and the Guard Room, returning to the truck. The Guard gave the driver the required instructions for my night’s lodging and then I took my seat beside the Corporal and we headed off in the direction of the huts I had seen as we entered the camp.
Block B was a long, low, wooden Army type hut with a couple of steps at one end leading to an entrance door. We stopped and my driver lifted my luggage from the truck and headed for the steps. He opened the door and all I could see was pitch blackness. “Light lock, Sir”, explained the Corporal. Again, close the outer door before opening the inner door and then facing me was a long corridor with about half a dozen low wattage lamps. We moved down the corridor and, arriving at Cabin 3, we entered. The Corporal asked me to wait outside before he had gone in , explaining that he had to draw the blackout curtains before switching on the light. He impressed on me that I must do that every night.
He left me and I just threw myself on the bed to collect myself after a long travelling day. After a few minutes I got up and eventually found the shower. I had a good scrub down and returning to my cabin and got into bed. Within minutes I was fast asleep. The first lap of my journey into the unknown was completed. I had notched up the first day of my future.
Bill Brown’s wartime memoir runs to a weighty thirty four chapters. Further extracts from his remarkable story will appear in future editions of the Newsletter.