Memories of Stoke-on-Trent people - Ken
Life in the Ceramic Tile Industry
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By the time I joined the HG there was no shortage of arms. The first Sunday after joining, several of us were taught to fire the P17 rifle. This gun had been the standard rifle of the American armed forces during the First World War. It took 0.300inch calibre ammunition and had a prominent red band painted around to prevent being mistakenly fed with British 0.303inch calibre. I joined just in time to help crowbar open some of the last of the rough wooden crates in which the grease-encased guns had lain for many years. There was no shortage of 0.300 ammunition. Within a few weeks the younger members of our platoon had been formed into machine gun teams and, during training, we put a lot of lead Into the conveniently positioned Racecourse Colliery spoil tip.
The Racecourse Pit
(William Jacks) (from 'Tales of Old Hanley')
The Browning medium machine gun had also been standard American issue. It was water-cooled and, really, too heavy for infantry use. We had fixed positions for them. Our position was near the Hanley Electricity Works in The Parkway. The company possessed two Thompson sub machine guns (the Tommy guns associated with gangsters) and in early 1941 Sten guns were issued. The Sten did the same job as the Tommy gun but was much cheaper, faster and easier to produce. We also had a few Blacker Bombards, which supposedly projected petrol bombs coated in adhesive. I remain convinced that the BB was of more danger to those behind, than to anything in front. There were plenty of Mills bombs (36 grenade), Hawkins anti tank mines (75 grenade), Bakelite stun bombs (69 grenade) and many others. The TV comedy, “Dad’s Army”, did not (could not) exaggerate the hilarious situations that came about in such a disparate part time force. But, it was numerous, very well armed, trained by dedicated veterans and each battalion knew its’ home patch and had competed and co-operated with neighboring battalions in numerous exercises. My opinion is that, should invading forces have managed to land, the HG would have been a formidable foe throughout the land
Call up for military service took place around one’s 18th birthday. Each person had an “age and service group number” determined by the date he entered the services, his age at the time and for how long he had served. ASG 26 contained a lot of men because it included all those who had been called for two years military service early in 1939 and were not to be released until 6 years later.
During the early years of the war it became very obvious that the country was suffering from a drastic shortage of technically trained people, whether craftsmen or graduates. (Has anything changed?). This led to the system of recruiting university entrants being radically altered in 1941. Shortly after leaving school, to join Richards Tiles, I was summoned to Manchester University and told I would be reading Math’s. But I didn’t fancy reading Math’s and I could not be directed because I was well short of my 18th birthday. I remember then being sent for by the Principal of (the then) Stoke Technical College, Dr. Harry Webb but he failed to change my mind. Fortunately for me, as I foolishly closed that door, another opened. I was summoned a few weeks later to Birmingham where I was interviewed by a panel of officers from the three armed forces. Like hundreds of other young men I was told of the Engineering Cadetship scheme to train us to become technical officers for the Army, Navy and Air Force. This was much more to my liking and I was delighted to be accepted.
I arrived in St. Helens on 3rd March 1942 and reported to Dr. Hazeldine, Principal of the Gamble Institute. St. Helens was, and still is of course, the hometown of Pilkingtons Glass. The Gamble Institute had close connections with Pilkingtons. Ceramic and glass technologies are often studied together. The other main industry of the town was coal mining. In fact, we were far from gleaming spires; we were in a very industrial town. But the lecturers were good and were supplemented by others from outside. One named Jackson (from ICI or Liverpool University) took us for chemical engineering but he was, in fact, the first person to open for me, the door to that difficult-to-teach subject, Mathematics.
We were from various backgrounds: grammar schools, public schools, first year university students and two from the armed forces. We were in three groups of twenty, two groups for a 21month course and one for an 18month course, which included me. Lectures occupied a full five and a half days per week and breaks were for only two or three days around the bank holidays. There were also some RAF and WAAF personnel in the college. One of our cadets, Jim Box, had the good sense to later marry one of the WAAFs. She was named Mary Hacking and her father had a milk delivery business in Birches Head.
Most of my fellow cadets were enrolled into a Home Guard anti aircraft battery in Liverpool. They were equipped with “Z” guns. I never saw one, but they were multiple rocket launchers. What they lacked in accuracy was, hopefully, made up for in numbers as simultaneously exploding rockets filled a cube of sky. I was not in that battery because I had already transferred to a local unit, the 75th County of Lancaster Battalion Home Guard. My Company Commander was Major Varley who headed an engineering organization. He recommended me for H.G.commission and I was promoted to Lieutenant in the December. By now, I was able to teach other HG members, and some of the RAF personnel, the small-arms skills taught to me in the Potteries
My new unit had 2pounder anti-tank guns. They had proved to be ineffective against heavily armoured tanks during the retreat to Dunkirk and were replaced by the 6pounder and later the 17pounder. They were beautifully engineered, accurate and fine for our purposes. We spent happy hours on the seashore at Altcart, firing out to sea at drogues towed behind speedboats. I enjoyed my three years in the Home Guard. It is interesting to reflect that, during that time, I must have fired many more rounds of ammunition, and from a much greater variety of weapons, than during the whole of my subsequent service with the British and Indian Armies.
After graduating we went to the armed service of our choice; in my case it was the Army. My first posting was to Perth for basic training with the Black Watch. Six weeks later found us in REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) at Bestwood Lodge, Arnold, Nottinghamshire. This unit can best be described as one that made sure that we passed WOSB (War Office Selection Board) testing for officer status. The unit was frowned on by many; who thought it was a form of cheating. However, had we not passed WOSB the monies and effort spent on our higher education would have been wasted, in the short term at least. The present day recruitment testing methods for many large organizations are based on and remain much the same as those used by WOSB during the ‘39/45 war.
The whole period of our training in this country, from becoming cadets until embarkation for overseas, was under the aegis of the Military College of Science. After passing WOSB there was a further six weeks of training at Foremark Hall, Derbyshire and we were then commissioned as 2nd lieutenants.
The first REME unit, in which my training continued, was at Bridgend, South Wales. (This autobiography is to concentrate on people and events connected with North Staffordshire, but I will occasionally digress if an event altered my perceptions). One morning Major Hicks, newly arrived from the Far East, sent for a fellow trainee, Tom Ingram, and me. He was well pleased to be able to tell us that the Pioneer Corps was pulling anti-landing stakes from the beach at Port Talbot. One of the obsolete tanks they were using for the purpose had sunk into the sand and the tide was coming in! Tom and I were happy at being sent to watch the recovery. The Scammel, a very powerful vehicle equipped with winches to deal with heavy loads, was turned out. Hicks sent the Recovery Team to other duties and handed over to us the Scammel and two admin.staff. We arrived at the beach at high tide. The tank’s turret was just visible way out to sea on the gently sloping sand beach. We were within the perimeter of an RAF unit and they obviously looked on us as recovery experts. Whilst Tom and I were taking furtive glances at our recovery manuals someone suggested that a plentiful supply of railway sleepers might be of use. Furthermore, they were carried to the beach by a working party of German prisoners and they, also, were put at our disposal. As we started the job it became increasingly obvious that one man knew best what to do. He was a naval prisoner. The tank was pulled out within the hour and left to drain on a bed of railway sleepers. We sent our personnel to the canteen for beer and cigarettes and had a “Happy Hour” on the beach with our new Recovery Team. Such was my first encounter with the enemy. We learned later that Hicks received information of our progress by telephone. His report of the incident in each of our records reads; “Makes good use of resources available”.
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Military Collage of Science