This is the fourth and final article in a series recollecting Britain in the 1940’s. My uncle, the late Mr Gordon Bessant is telling his memories to Mr Joe Hieatt-Smith. The tapes were made in 1994, not 1996 as previously stated.
For myself, I found myself being trained for the Japanese campaign. I was 14 at the outbreak of the war, and just before I was 19 I had my papers to go into the army. I had applied to go into the Navy before that when I was 17. Two friends and myself had volunteered one Saturday to join the Navy. I passed my entrance examination for the Royal Navy and was waiting to go in but I didn’t, because finally my papers came and I went into the army instead.
I had to go all the way to Glasgow, even though I lived in Southampton. I don’t say it was any hardship to go to Glasgow, but it was a very dodgy train service and the length of time it took to do it. I remember I left Southampton station at 4:30 in the afternoon and I didn’t get into Glasgow till gone 9 o’clock the following morning. When we got to the barracks where we had to report, we were immediately told off because we were late – but we’d been on the train all night.
I had finally joined the army at 19. This was the beginning of 1945. I trained with the Scottish Highland Light Infantry. That was a really crack unit to join. They were a fighting force, and no mistake.
I had 6 weeks primary training with them. Remember I had trained as a craftsman in industry but they make you a soldier first. After I did my 6 weeks training with the infantry there, I came down to Woolwich in London which was a trade test reception centre where we had to do a trade test as I was a craftsman. You took your 1st, 2nd and 3rd exams for your trade test. My apprenticeship had been interrupted. But they guaranteed that if you passed your trade test it would still be acceptable and your apprenticeship was deemed completed.
I was in the Woolwich Arsenal, and then went to Hemel Hempstead, which was a gun repairing workshop. We covered the whole lot from winding an electric motor to fixing a chimney pot. Every field of engineering, we went through it all. Most of the people working in the factories at that time were the elderly, who were the cream of the craftsmen in their older years. People in their 50’s and older, because the younger people had all been called up.
I had a posting to go to Nottingham where we were going to go to Algiers to mop up the German lines in the Middle East. I got all kitted out for the Algiers invasion, but then the No 1 and No 3 Commando Brigade were badly shot up in the Dutch islands. Out of about 8,000 men, only about 3,000 came out of it alive. So of course they looked for people in the army as replacements. We were in a holding unit to go to Algiers and now they were talking about sending us to Japan.
I got called into the office at the regimental headquarters in Nottingham and I was told that we were on a 6 month’s course training with No 1 Commando Brigade and I didn’t complete the 6 months course, instead we were put on the boat.
I did a really intensive course for the planned commando landings in Japan. As a craftsman we were to bring out the workshops section, but as a soldier it made you a more aware and effective fighting machine, skilled with one hand to kill and with the other to repair things. Because what they found was that if they had problems with their tanks, cars, lorries, radios, ammunition, guns, etc, they would be useless unless they knew how to repair them.
I was with the REME, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. They called me out and said they wanted me to volunteer for No 1 Commando Brigade. Do you know what they bribed me with? I’m here in Nottingham, and they knew that I lived down on the south coast. Luckily enough I liked the army. It suited my personality and my way of life, so I enjoyed handling guns and ammunition and the military lifestyle. I found it much more conducive to the way I thought. I like people to do things when they’re told and not argue!
They bribed me by telling me they were doing the landing courses off the south coast – Lulworth cove, or Portland, or the Isle of Wight. There would be a fortnight or three weeks of that and they hoped to be ready for it by November. Then we would go to Japan, through Rangoon.
The Americans had already built two atomic bombs. I didn’t think this would work so I agreed to do the training down on the southcoast. I was walking out with Norah at that time, Norah Carter, and we were corresponding with one another. Norah lived in New Milton so I thought I’d have 2 month’s holiday on the south coast. It was June and July. All along the coastline were sea defences. Masses and masses and masses of barbed wire and tubular scaffolding. Tubular scaffolding was built with the front frames right up and tubes had been driven hard into the sand or shingle and masses of barbed wire to stop the German army invading.
When the tide was in you could swim without being entangled with the barbed wire. What you had to be careful of was the minefields. Seriously, I’m not joking, I went right through a minefield once! You know near to the Chewton Glen?
Norah lived in Christchurch Road, Old Milton. Because we were in training, leave was pretty tight. Sometimes you could get a night’s pass from about 4 pm to 10 or 12 pm. I would be able to sneak off and see Norah. But it didn’t work that way. They said we’re going to Brighton instead, because of the type of beaches there were more suitable for the for the landings.
Gosh it would be a long way to go to New Milton for the evening on a 6 hour pass! I remember one year before that I went off one night to see Norah. I had a small low powered motorbike, but when I was half way through the Forest I ran out of petrol. It was already dark and there was nothing for it but to push the thing.
When I managed to get it to the top of the hill this wild west voice suddenly boomed out of the darkness, “What’s the problem fella?” He sounded like John Wayne. I said I was out of petrol, gasoline.
There was a long line of American tanks there, parked at the side of the road waiting to embark on the D Day landings. “I think I can help you with that,” this big guy said, and he took petrol from his tank and filled up my bike. I often thought of those Yanks and wondered how many of them came safely back. They were only a year or two older than me.
Anyway we completed our field training in Nottingham. They had a training area there using live ammunition to get you mentally aware of what it was like. I must tell you one of the jokes. We had to crawl across fields, and all across the fields were stretched wires 8 or 10 inches above the ground. You could just get your small pack which was on your back and your shoulders under the wire without touching them. If you did touch them you triggered off mines and they would explode all around you.
They weren’t the sort of mines which would blow you to pieces, but they would certainly give you a nasty impact. They allowed for 8% injuries on these things. Well, I was crawling across the field and something hit me. A heck of a jolt in my back. Gosh! I thought, I’ve been hit. I turned over to get my small pack off, thinking it bound to be filled up with blood. A piece of shrapnel had gone right through my water bottle. What I could feel running on my back was not blood, it was water from the water bottle! I thought, that’s close enough for me!
We were getting ready to go to Japan. I was on the troop ship from Southampton called the Queen of Bermuda. That was a luxury liner which used to do the cruises from New York to Bermuda and back. It had been commandeered and all the luxury stuff had been stripped out and filled with “stand easy” beds for the troops. I sailed for the east on the Queen of Bermuda. It took us 5 weeks to get from Southampton to India and then we had to travel across India by train, which was another 3 days. It was the longest journey I had done up to then.
We got on the train on the Thursday night and I don’t think we got off it again until the Tuesday afternoon – the same train right across India. We started to get our unit ready for Japan and we started training in jungle warfare. I had an extensive fortnight, or three weeks I think, in jungle fighting.
I think it was in August. One afternoon in August and it was announced that the atomic bomb had been dropped at Hiroshima. I can never quite remember which one was first. The Americans dropped it, with the full approval of the British government and all the others involved. I think it was a few days after that, I’m not sure whether it was perhaps a fortnight later, they dropped another one on Nagasaki and the Japanese capitulated.
It is because they dropped those bombs that I’m here today. There is no way that Number 1 Commando Brigade would have survived a full on invasion into Japan.
Norah Bessant nee Carter, is still here, and as busy as ever. She has sold her house today, for she is preparing to emigrate to Vancouver Island, Canada, to be near her son Graham, and we all wish her all the luck in the world.
This is the last of a series of 4 articles on the events of the 1940’s. Copyright David Carter 2005. Reproduced with permission.
When he is not writing, David Carter runs a holiday cottage website http://www.pebblebeachmedia.co.uk where you can browse through over 7,000 holiday cottages, villas and apartments worldwide. His new book SPLAM, Successful Property Letting And Management is now available, 240 plus pages and you can find more information on that at http://www.splam.co.uk. You can contact David direct on any matter at firstname.lastname@example.org