Wartime looms

(From the memoirs of Horace Drake)

Alone, in silence, at a certain time of night
Listening, and looking up from what I’m trying to write,
I hear a local train along the Valley. And “There
Goes the one-fifty”, think I to myself; aware
That somehow its habitual travelling comforts me,
Making my world seem safer, homelier, sure to be
The same tomorrow; and the same, one hopes, next year.
“There’s peacetime in that train.” One hears it disappear
With needless warning whistle and rail-resounding wheels.
“That train’s quite like an old familiar friend”, one feels.


Siegfried Sassoon, Rhymed Ruminations (1940)

On the 2nd September 1939 my father said to me he would like to try the experience of flying. It was agreed that we should go to his brother Bill who lived in Hutton, just outside Weston Super Mare, for a weekend. The planes would fly from Pengam Moors Cardiff to Hutton; six shillings for a single ticket and nine shillings and sixpence return. On the Saturday we caught a train to Cardiff General, took a taxi to Pengam Moors, bought our single tickets and it was not long before we were allowed to board; I don’t think there were any other passengers. They were only six-seater planes and the journey time was ten minutes (nearly all of it going up and down). What amused my father was the no-smoking sign which was a big red notice “NO SMOKING – NOT EVEN ABDULLARS”! Of course these were the Rolls Royce of cigarettes: the poorer classes could only afford Woodbines! I think he laughed all the way over to Hutton! Alas he was not able to have another trip home by plane. On the Sunday morning, Mr Chamberlain announced “We are now at War with Germany”! We went down to the air field and all flights were cancelled right away. What a disappointment, we went back to Uncle Bill’s house, had a discussion and we made our way home by train. Being a Sunday it meant quite a long tiresome journey. I was sorry he could not have his return journey but Mr Chamberlain had other plans which would affect millions of other people for many years to come.

Boarding the plane to Weston on the cusp of War

Every railway reservist was sent to a training camp at Longmoor for two weeks each year as Longmoor had its own private stretch of railway where all training of every aspect of railway life was carried out. This was a very relaxed affair in peace-time but now it was for real. My contemporaries were the first to be called up for military service. Some of them would be given commissions and others would be non-commissioned officers. They would then be sent to head up the different army units which would now be in various parts of the country. These units would be called “Railway operating companies” of the Royal Engineers.

 

Almost all railwaymen who were called up ended up at Longmoor for initial training before going on to a railway operating company. In the Great War they were called the Royal Ordnance Department and the unit, which was composed mainly of Great Western Rail- way men, was the 154 R.O.D. – unchanged in World War II. Other units were numbered 153, 189, 190 and 192. As these men were reservists they would be sent on to any of these units to prepare for the arrival of the new recruits who would soon be called up and after their initial training would be posted to one of the units as mentioned above. All Great Western recruits would be hoping to be posted to the 154 Railway Operating Company but alas it did not always work out like that!

Photos of Horace just after call-up

Over the course of 1940 and 1941, I moved frequently around the country, often moving further north, visiting Alton, Henley, Darlington and even Edinburgh. I experienced what army life had to offer and learnt about the railways, and throughout these travels, I met a lot of people and gained numerous memories.

 

At a place we called Weavers Down where we had our initiation to life under canvas we did a lot of route marching. With us was a Captain Jones from Cardiff, a big man who enjoyed walking. He would get so far in front, turn round and walk back to us. Some- times he would see someone struggling to carry his rifle, “Oh give it to me, Son,” and perhaps on the way he would be carrying three or four rifles. We used to call him Slogger Jones, he was the only one who would do this. He was very popular but unfortunately he was soon posted away from us.

Away at War but Gwyneth was never far from my thoughts!

A photo of Gwyn that spent many of my years abroad in my wallet

I qualified as an engine driver third class and a short time after as an engine driver second class, which was my position for the duration of the war. On weekends when we were off duty, my pal and I would sometimes go into Reading and spend a couple of hours down by the river. Many years later, on Easter Monday (11 April) 1977 my daughter Eleanor was married in the church near Caversham bridge. After the service the photographer wanted to take photos in the graveyard, and by extreme coincidence he alighted with his tripod on the very spot where we had our picnic in 1941.

Slogger Jones with his many rifles

Our final move in this country was to Otley in Yorkshire. I have never been so cold as I was on the local firing range at Ilkley Moor. I was chosen to play rugby for Northern Command at Richmond. A car was sent to pick me up and take me to the ground, with a police escort. We played on Richmond Hill but by gum it was so cold and windy. We ended up at Catterick for a cup of tea and a cheese sandwich with the Royal Signals Corps. – my only visit to a race course!

 

We crossed the Scottish border with heavy hearts, still not knowing where we were headed, and we finally arrive at Gourock on the river Clyde. This was a major shipbuilding port which had been hastily prepared for embarkation of thousands of troops. There were several big liners such as the Strathmore and Sterling Castle; we were to embark on the Strathnaver – a fairly large-tonnage cruise liner. The cabins of the Strathnaver had been enlarged to accommodate four servicemen instead of two. Our first job was to get all our equipment on board; this was called G10-98, and within hours we were on our way.

The RMS Strathnaver – taken in 1937