Friday, June 20, 2008

Thursday 15th June 1939

Rainy morning; nothing to do except overhaul the signals gear in readiness for the night ops., scheduled to start in the afternoon. George wangled things neatly. He had to go into town to buy some minor part from an ironmonger – a screw or bolt or something. To help him, he selected Stan and I and we all went in Captain Slinky B. Whilst George was at the ironmongers, Stan and I bought sandwiches, biscuits, and chocolate to augment the usual “rations” (Jacko, George and Tiny had given us a list of their requirements) Back within 30 minutes.

The Battery moved off about 3 o’clock. As I’ve said little previously about our work on schemes I’ll describe this one in more detail. “M1” followed another lorry – “GB” I think – along about 15 miles of winding road until we reached Hatfield Broad Oak – Anne’s village! We got the order to dismount and smoke. I lay in long grass, rested my head on my steel helmet, and dozed off. Awoke about 10 minutes later. The lorry was still there. Rose and Moore lounged in it, half asleep. The rest were a little further on, talking and smoking. Ling was stretched on a garden wall, asleep.
(In my tent – “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” – we call him “Sleepy” Tiny is “Bashful”, Jacko is “Happy”, I am “Doc”, Alan Cracknell is “Dopey”, George is “Snow White”…)

I took a sip from my water bottle, ate a cornbeef and bread sandwich to take away the dryness in my mouth, and lit a cigarette, looking up at the sky. I felt nice and warm; under my overalls I’d got an old tunic, the buttons of which had never been cleaned. (Active service conditions – no cleaning.) In my haversack was a pullover, my own rations and the unappetising Army rations, and a military squared map. My greatcoat, groundsheet and two blankets, were in M1.

Presently the guns came past. Soon afterwards our little convoy got under way – Ling reluctantly rousing himself – and dashed through the village into Barrington Hall Park. When M1 stopped, we jumped out and set up the exchange, ran out metallic circuits to the CP Phone and CP Operator and CP Message Op. The A link and B link men trotted off and laid an earth return line. We were through within about ten minutes but communication from the links was bad until we’d made a few adjustments and poured water on our earth pins.

We’ve had the same men for several days now and they are all learning their jobs. I had Ling with me on the Exchange. Moore was fixing the terminals as the lines came in. Rose was message operator and Fenning was Command Post operator. Stripe, Willoughby, Burch and Chinnery were maintenance men and had little to do, once we were through to the links. Both observation posts came on the line soon afterwards. We’d been here about an hour and the guns were (theoretically) blowing the enemy to blazes, when Segt. Quayle – our guardian angel – spoke to me from B Troop. “That you Dawson? We’re goin’ to withdraw soon. I reckon. Get ready for it. Leave two men and take as much equipment to your new position as can be spared. OK?”

Sure enough, a few minutes later we were ordered to withdraw. M1 rushed up. We took one telephone, one pair of pliers, two earth pins, two reels of wire and the spare telephone exchange. We left Ling and Rose still at their posts whilst the guns still (theoretically) thundered. Following the gunnery position officers, M1 eventually stopped in a field about three miles in rear. We were dismounted against a hedge half way between two woods – Priory Wood and Bury Wood, to the SW of White Roding. There were no link men yet and no command post men but we laid the lines to their respective positions so that when the rest arrived they only had to plug in. I took the exchange and telephone and jammed them half-way up the side of a ditch, against the roots of a tree. I laid my groundsheet at the bottom of the ditch and put my other gear down there too. A thorn bush spread over me, so I could not sit upright in this retreat. The other blokes laughed when they saw me “go to earth” in this way, and made their beds in the field, in the hedge’s lee.

At dusk, a lorry came up the lane. We walked across the field and drew more foul rations and steaming hot tea. I was surprised to see how many men had gradually arrived without being noticed. The link signallers were there and George Embleton and Hignall, the two troop NCO’s. After supper I returned to the exchange and got through to both links.

Midnight; it was raining steadily, yet there was still a high wind. No rain reached my shelter, however. My bed was quite warm and soft. I took off boots and overall jacket and made them into a pillow, pulled the greatcoat right over my head and dozed off – telephone receiver against my ear. I heard whispers and swishing grass – the main party had arrived! The blighters put the CO apparatus down against me and told me my exchange was in the wrong place! They suddenly realised however, to my intense relief (what, move everything, undo all the work we’d done and leave my ditch!) and moved to the spot where their lines had been run.

Everyone whispered except Ling and Rose, who’d lost their blankets and kept asking for them, loudly. Eventually Liut. Adams – he’s a very decent officer – told them to go and sleep in a barn near the wagon lines. I had to awaken Fenning and without any complaint he left his bed and went to his post. (He was there all night, without a break, actually.) Burch couldn’t sleep so he joined him for company’s sake.

Soon I was quite busy on the exchange. I sat on my bed in the dark, feeling the plugs with my fingers, counting the keys before switching through. Sergt. Quayle lay down nearby, wrapped up like a mummy of Egypt. I smoked. I seemed to be the only one working. Motionless forms on the lip of the ditch; the command post was out of sight.
The rain drizzled sadly but not a drop reached me.

A long time afterwards, when “B” troop was already silent, “A” troop said, “A Troop Zero Lines Set”. “A – Troop – Zero – Lines – Set” repeated Fenning. Sergt. Quayle moved – was it instinct? “Are the zero lines set, Dawson?” “Yes, Sergeant” “Ah well, you can turn in presently. There won’t be much more”. He rolled over and slept. Half an hour later, lines all dead silent, I also turned in.

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