Chapter 8: Catterick and the 5th Division, 1938-39

Early in 1938 our Course members were allocated to Signals units with the expectation of becoming familiar with all the functions and activities of real soldiering. Two of us were in for a surprise. We were sent to 5 Divisional Signals in Scarborough. Driving there to learn more we were told that by the time we were due to report the unit itself would have moved to Catterick, so it was seemingly joining us rather than the other way round.

Reporting in due course to the hutted Le Cateau lines there was remarkably little to be found. There was no Company to serve a Divisional Headquarters. The last of three Gunner Sections had just left with its Artillery Regiment and there was only one Brigade Section. James Yule and I were the only two officers living in Mess. Being one place above him in the Army List I could claim to be the senior dining-in member for what that was worth. When it came to allocation of duties I took over the command of 13 Brigade Signal Section, not that I remember anyone there from whom to take over. James had to be content with looking after nine men giving support to 7th Royal Tanks.

The matter of immediate importance was that the unit had won its way to the final of the Hospital Cup in Scarborough. Was it by chance or not that we had been selected for this posting. James and I happened to be two Soccer colours from Woolwich, he an expert and I a temporarily converted rugger player. Can such qualifications affect one’s posting? I have been suspicious of posting organisations ever since. We lost the match on a scorching hot day after 45 minutes each way followed by extra time.

Our charming commanding officer, George Henderson, had another priority. He had been severely wounded in France during the Great War and, after evacuation to Switzerland, spent much time recovering from the loss of an eye. Later in his service he had been an early, if not the first, manager of the Royal Signals Display team with its showmanship involving a mixture of both horses and motor cycles. 1938 was mechanisation year and there were to be Motor Cycle Trials to help promote vehicle mastery in place of horsemastership. This was of immediate interest to our Commanding Officer and his two new officers were to train a team of four. With only the brief School of Signals training to build on there would be plenty of work to do. To help us was Stowers, a former Display Team Sergeant.

My Brigade Signal Section had men with plenty of skills, being composed in large part by long-service soldiers who had completed a five-year tour in India. There was apparently much truth in the ditty which started ‘You’ll get no promotion this side of the Ocean…’. Stowers was an excellent operator, recently from overseas, who was plainly a leader. He was a valuable all-round athlete and had achieved a good level of education either in the army or before. Nevertheless there was considerable discussion and tooth sucking before it was agreed that he should be promoted to the rank of Acting Unpaid Lance Corporal. Many of his kind became officers when war broke out and gave valuable service. I hope he did well too.

We worked hard and regularly to meet the motor cycling requirement. The moors were close at hand with steep hills, minor streams and varied surfaces right on our doorstep. The course when set would have long sections with demanding time limits for completion mixed with test sections of hill, stream or bog which should be ridden without loss of balance for minimal penalties. There was a small penalty for putting one foot down for a prod, more off for greater footwork and no points for absolute failure. Some practice was needed too in the preparation of our machines and quick roadside repairs. In the end we carried off both the team and individual Northern Command Trophies. One prod of the foot on the two circuits of the course left me in first place.

The Army Trials were in Aldershot, giving advantage to the local teams in knowledge of both the type of terrain and the local geography. Even so we achieved second place and at a later date I was invited on my personal record to become the officer in a group of twelve soldiers to compete in the Scottish Six Days Motor Cycle Trials. This was a great experience with many interesting people encountered. It took us from Edinburgh up to Fort William, out to Mallaig and several other places of note.

It was a pity we were not to be mounted on the faithful Norton 16H that we knew so well. In fact we had the twofold responsibility of competing in the trial and testing the products of four manufacturers before decision on a new type of machine for the Army. Norton, Matchless, BSA and Triumph were the manufacturers involved. I drew Triumph who gave us poor support, possibly because of too little warning.

We were only able to collect our machines at the Midlands factory at the last minute, riding directly to Edinburgh to check in. All vehicles in those days had to be run in at moderate speeds for the first thousand miles or so. Otherwise they were liable to seize up. The Triumph 350cc side valve engine lacked power, but even the more powerful makes we had were no match for the mounts of the civilian entries. We were up against class performers and would have liked to claim modest places amongst them. Nevertheless I had followed one piece of military advice which was ‘get known for something’. I was a motor cyclist! Though the task set me by Colonel Henderson was an unusual one I believe it had certain merits. To be given something important to do for the sake of the unit and to be left to carry it out unsupervised could have make or break ending. If it works out right it is good for all parties.

Catterick Camp life was busy and congenial. Having left the major Signals area we were now much more part of the garrison with friends from every arm of the Service. The Officers’ Club was the centre of much social activity as it was at this time in Aldershot. No one would have forecast that in a dozen years time both would be gradually fading away. Tennis Tournaments were popular and Saturday evening dances well subscribed - the Morritt Arms at Greta Bridge also being much favoured. The Lake District was within easy reach and the local countryside was magnificent. Trips home (to Benson near Oxford) were easier to fit in. At this time high quality cars of a certain age had little value. I was the owner of a 2-litre Lagonda and driving was a pleasure.

My private expedition training continued even if the military side lacked purpose. Nigel and I made a summer sortie to Norway. There is a jingle that remains in my head which describes our mission:

When I was young and Hitler small and Goering hadn’t left his hangar
I went to Norway having bought a ticket on the Argonaut,
A vessel advertised to call at Bergen and Stavanger.

This is precisely what we did, Nigel, myself and the Hon Godfather, Brian Palmes. I do not remember Bergen, a Hanseatic Port and ancient capital of Norway, as being large, but perhaps we only explored the seaboard. The steep-sided grassy slopes of the fjord were spectacularly green and the whole picturesque in its very best sense. As we travelled it became apparent that this was no place for speed. Many of the roads were not metalled and, as is their way, became ribbed and very rough on the car until one learned that increasing speed to a suitable point meant that one rode the top of the ridges in reasonable comfort. On one occasion a greasy stretch caused us to slide disconsolately into a ditch. We were prepared to some extent by having brought a rope. By attaching one end to the car and waving the other at the few passers-by, one of them got the message and towed us out.

On the mountain roads another hazard appeared to be large herds of goats. In places where the road dropped sharply away on the valley side we were worried for their safety. In fact they were no problem. We found that they were superbly agile so that they were impossible to alarm and that if one moved slowly they flowed round the car like a liquid. We came to enjoy their cheese.

In Oslo we felt at ease and at home, making contacts readily. Memories in Norway and Sweden are much of trees, lakes and fine views. Plentiful trout were enjoyed long before fish farms made this delicacy easy to come by. In Stockholm the lingua franca for us was German, which was the second language at the time in Sweden. Stockholm seemed to be far ahead of Britain in planning its city and creating new buildings of style. On we went south past the great lakes to cross to Denmark at Helsingor.

This was the time of Chamberlain’s fateful visit to Hitler in Bonn and there were surprises in store for us. In a central square yellow posters were being scattered about with the words displayed ‘Krisen Akut’ and ‘Chamberlain rejser hjem’ which even we could understand. Our Prime Minister’s visit to Hitler had failed. Reporting to the British Consul the next day we explained our Service connections and our previous intention of driving home through Germany. What should we do? “Well”, he said, “Germany is plainly off and the port of Esbjerg would not be safe. If war is declared the ferry would be stopped and you would be taken off. Your only option is to drive all the way back to Bergen, which will be a convoyed port in war. Catch a boat there.” This we did. Arriving at Newcastle, the heat had gone out of the situation. There were some signs of trench-digging about, the first indication we were to see of war preparation. Back at work there was no build-up of the strength of our unit for a real job. We became an extra Depot Regiment for the training of additional recruits with drill instructors loaned to us from infantry battalions. I was myself borrowed by the Signals Training Battalion to help increase the flow of new Signals operators. I still did part time with my Brigade Section as time flowed by. There is little to record about preparations for a forthcoming war. I do not recall any efforts to consider what shape it might take or what we should be doing about it. Perhaps another ghastly trench war was envisioned and this was a thought to be stifled. The Royal Tank Corps, as it was then called, was moving (with all too little help) in the right direction and others might be making modest progress. Thank goodness the creation of good new aircraft was not thought too provocative to our eventual enemy as improvement to the Army was thought to be.

Our summer manoeuvres showed our dismal state. The event took some three or four days at the pace of marching infantry. Laundry vans and other lorries had been hired to provide essential transport as garrison vehicles were too few. Bren gun carriers were represented by small cars decorated with yellow flags and the only anti-tank protection was the Boyes rifle, an outsize version of the soldier’s personal weapon and in short supply at that. Only an enemy could have taken encouragement from what went on. So the story continued with lingering false hopes of peace for a further year.

For an Easter venture leave was not restricted but uncertainty prevented forward planning so I signed on for two weeks amongst 4000-metre mountains round Zermatt, which proved to be my farewell to Switzerland for many years. The response for skiers had been poor because of other people’s doubts and I found myself guided in a party of three with Jeanette Kessler, one of our leading racers, and Ripley Oddie, her fiancé. I could not have had better company. There was no mountain transport working in the spring, so the ascent of Monte Rosa, for example, was a two-day climb with a night spent in the Betemps hut. We ranged far afield, though less strenuously than Harold Taylor might have wished.

The remaining few months to the war were eked out happily enough, perhaps too much so for the several sincere friendships which were suddenly to be severed by war’s declaration.

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