INTRODUCTION Part One of this story will take you from the date that Dad joined the army on his 20th birthday, the 13th June 1940, through his training in Yorkshire, his first assignments in Aldershot and Barry Island in South Wales and then on to Egypt.
As he arrives in Egypt he starts on the banks of the Bitter Lakes near Suez where the Germans are laying mines each night. After just a few weeks he is posted to Benghazi but, as Erwin Rommel surprises all with the speed of his advance from Tripoli, he is asked to return. By the time he returns, orders have been issued for the majority of his regiment to be posted to Greece. In his absence someone else has filled his spot; that stroke of fate, missing that posting to Greece, changed his whole future war experience.
Within weeks a new assignment follows, working in the Transport Logistics Department at Middle East HQ in Cairo. He will stay here for a year, supporting the needs of the Western Desert Campaign and the 8th Army in their attempts to overcome the ingenuity of Rommel and the strength of his Panzer divisions. A year which would see the pendulum of success move both ways, with the most decisive battles at El Alamein yet to come.
Whilst the Desert Campaign in Africa was continuing British forces had suffered their biggest ever retreat in Burma. The Japanese had attacked Rangoon in December 1941 and by the middle of 1942 there were no longer any Allied troops left on Burmese soil. The 900 miles from Rangoon in the south to the safety of India in the north had cost more than 13,000 British and Indian casualties.
The Allies were now regrouping, rebuilding their forces to retake Burma and were seeking to increase the number of British Officers in the Indian Army. Seeing a related bulletin for such recruits, Dad applied for a commission in the Indian Army in January ’42. He was successful and this section finishes with him catching a boat in April ’42 destined for Bombay (now Mumbai) and an incredible adventure. Still only 21, he was the youngest of 25 successful applicants that had been selected. The true adventure had now begun.
THE WAR IN EUROPE IN JUNE 1940 To set the scene, first a little about what was happening as Dad joined up. Just two weeks before he signed up on the 13th June 1940, the evacuation of Dunkirk had taken place. It had been nine months since Germany had invaded Poland, on 1st September 1939, and although the period up to the spring of 1940 had been quiet enough, things were now going dramatically wrong from a British perspective.
By the end of 1939 Poland had effectively been divided up between Germany and their collaborator, Russia. Britain introduced food rationing in January 1940 but for the most part, time was spent in preparing for what was expected to come. The term ‘the phoney war’ which was often applied to this period, was well earned.
Things began to heat up when Germany invaded both Norway and Denmark in April 1940. Denmark surrendered but Norway, with support from Britain and France, did not. On 10th May, the same day as Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as British Prime Minister, Germany invaded France, Belgium and Holland. This was the start of the ‘Blitzkrieg’ or ‘lightning war’. Germany’s combination of fast armoured tanks on land and superiority in the air was devastating. They quickly overcame the superior numbers of French and Belgium forces, even though the British Expeditionary Force had been sent to help them.
Holland and Belgium fell by the end of May and by the 27th the evacuation from Dunkirk had started. So, by the time my father signed up on the 13th June it was all happening! On the day after he signed up, on 14th June, Paris would fall.
Joining the Royal Army Service Corp (RASC) It is not surprising that, with all that was going on, there were many who wanted to ‘sign up’ and ‘do their bit’. It is clear too that by ‘volunteering’ there was an element of choice as to which of the services you could join.
Dad chose to go into the Royal Army Service Corp (RASC), the prime function of which is more aligned to ‘Services and Supply’ than to direct combat. A section of the Army where he evidently thought that his work experience, as a clerk in local government, could be better utilised than being a ‘man at arms’. By the time the six years covered by this story are over however, any thought of this being a ‘soft option’ can be firmly dismissed!
THE ONGOING WAR: JULY – DECEMBER 1940 Whilst Dad was undertaking his initial Army training, the Battle of Britain was getting underway. This started in July and was the first battle to be fought solely in the air. Keep this in mind as you read of ‘air raid duties’ in the coming pages.
Britain secured a first narrow but hugely important victory. Britain had more planes than the Germans but not as many pilots and the heroics of the pilots we did have, coupled with radar, were all important to our success. As a consequence by the end of October Hitler called off his planned UK invasion.
As the Battle of Britain concluded The Blitz commenced. This was the term given to the systematic bombing of British cities. Amongst the first properties to be affected was Dad’s home address in Walthamstow E17. It would be a full year before there was once again ‘a family home’ in that area.
And so to the letters As far as possible the whole story is copied direct from ‘the letters’ and the date of the letter is given as part of the heading. Where the writing is mine, such as this chapter and the occasional note or explanation, then I have used italics. These additions will hopefully assist understanding, provide useful background and help to put things into context.
About the Author
David Townsend is the son of Don and Connie. He has two brothers and a sister. He is retired and lives in Surrey.