Army training at St Peter's Barracks - a personal recollection
This account by Ronald Stevens was written for the BBC's WW2 People's War project in 2005
Learning my Trade
To set the picture, in 1939 mechanical vehicles that were petrol driven were in their infancy and development stage. Firms like Vauxhall produced Bedford lorries, Fords, Morris and Austin plus many smaller firms were producing cars and other vehicles, while specialist firms produced buses, ambulances and fire engines for the civilian market.
In September 1939 World War II was declared, which meant that all the vehicles being produced were compulsorily purchased and all production was stepped up for the military market.
That's where I would be needed — to be trained to repair, service and drive all these types of vehicles in the Army.
The Royal Army Service Corps was responsible for Army transport having its own Workshops and Technical School. This was situated in Jersey at St Peter's Barracks where I was sent for my training as a vehicle mechanic.
During July 1939 I sat the Army Entrance Examination at Somerset Light Infantry Barracks at Taunton, and in August 1939 was informed I had passed and was to enlist into the Royal Army Service Corps. I was given a railway warrant to report to Southampton Docks on 30 August 1939 to travel to Jersey. This was to be the last time for several years that I would be in civvy clothes, for I would have to wear an Army uniform.
At Southampton Docks I met about a hundred lads, all in a similar situation, to travel by overnight boat to St Helier in Jersey. Here we found buses were waiting to take us to St Peter's Barracks next to the island airport. This is where our training was to begin, and I was issued with a uniform and an Army Number of T/88178 with the rank of Apprentice Tradesman.
The training was to comprise:
- Military regimental training - this was six weeks marching and drilling on a drill square learning the discipline of obeying orders.
- Trade training — for this I was training to be a vehicle mechanic. This was to be a course of theory and practical, starting off with making a variety of test pieces out of steel, six in all.
- Physical training — to develop our bodies. This included exercises in the gym, cross country running, sports, football etc.
- Educational training — this continued our schooling, for we had to sit the Army Certificate of Education Second Class, which I passed in December 1939. Then I started to study for my First Class Certificate of Education and passed Geography towards it.
I joined the church choir and attended services regularly, having always been used to being in a choir and attending St Judes Church in Weston-super-Mare. I was confirmed by the Bishop of Bath and Wells in a service in March 1940 in the local garrison church.
When we arrived in Jersey, our group of about 100 boys joined another 150 who had arrived, some in 1938 and others earlier in 1939. They were advanced in their training and these were the ones we had to compete with. Now at the age of 14 years and 3 months the Army is going to make a soldier and a trained technician out of me. That's what I've been told; little did I realize what this would entail.
I was only 4 ft 8 in tall and weighed 76 lb. I didn't have much going for me having just left school. It soon was to change. I was away from home, in another environment, with the reputation of being one of the smallest soldiers in the Army. For this I was being paid eleven pence a day — six shillings and five pence a week, of which we would be paid two shillings, the rest going to our credit for when we went on leave, unless we made an allowance to our parents. The two shillings had to cover cost of boot polish, and metal polish etc. for cleaning our kit, and any balance for tea/cakes at the NAAFI canteen, plus on occasion six pence for the cinema.
During the first week after our arrival we were given a sheet of brown paper and some string. This was to pack up our civilian clothes we came to Jersey in and send them back home. Why? I never understood, for they would never fit me again when I did get home.
After we were allocated our accommodation, we attended a parade outside the Quartermaster's Stores to be kitted out. In large groups we were ushered inside, though as it was a small building and cramped for space, the service was not of premium quality. Pieces of equipment and articles of clothing were simply thrown at us and it was a gamble as to whether or not our uniforms fitted properly. Few could describe it as "made to measure", mostly they just clung on us, and me being small, mine was like a shroud. On making a comment to this effect I was given a sharp retort: "You're in the Army now lad, get the camp tailor to make the alterations."
We were mystified by some of the accoutrements known as stick button, strap chin, housewife and dog collar, but were soon to be enlightened as to why these were included in the kit issue. The only dangerous weapon we signed for was a swagger cane, used mainly for drill practice; this had to be kept highly polished.
Once we had collected all this kit and deposited it in our locker, we had to parade at the Barber shop. After what we heard about Army style haircuts from the senior boys, it was not without some trepidation. It was my turn for short back and sides. The French hairdresser set about clipping the hair on the right side of my head as if he was intent on cutting off as much as possible in the shortest possible time. He snipped away until he realized in his eagerness my parting had disappeared. On making my observation to him I found he couldn't speak English or even understand it.
He seemed to consider it for a few moments and unsure what to do approached his elder colleague for advice. He also was French, and after a noisy discussion and expressive gesticulations they evidently reached a unanimous decision, his scissors poised ominously at the ready he returned to my half shorn head and to my consternation proceeded to enact the same treatment to the other side. I know the orders were to cut our hair short so there was little point in complaining any more to him. I did to the sergeant major on coming out and was duly marched in before the second in command, Captain Campbell, who duly remarked "it will grow again" — it did take time though. I did take some ribbing from the other lads.
Discipline was strict, the first six weeks was spent on the square sorting out our left from our right. It was often unpleasant to drill under the hot sun, but the sharp tongue of the drill instructor was even more unbearable to us "wee lads". Quick march — about turn to the right salute, Halt. The orders came loud and in quick succession. Often I thought it was to confuse us, as the stentorian voice goaded us into better efforts. We had to endure continual rebuke and seldom did we receive praise for our efforts.
One of the drill instructors was CSM Charlie Russell. He had a reputation on the parade ground for brusqueness, but under his tough exterior he was a very understanding and likeable character. We all admired him, and if we had a problem he was the one we turned to first for advice, help or sympathy. When he was frustrated by our sloppy display he was liable to throw his stout stick as far as he could across the Drill Square. As it sailed through the air on an erratic course, he would yell sternly "Boy" pointing a stubby finger at one of us "Fetch me that stick, on the double!"
As the boy hared off after it he would give the rest of the squad a dressing down using some choice army expressions, including his favourite: "You are like silk stockings full of diarrhoea". We never took offence at these caustic remarks. He was having his bit of fun and we took it in our stride.
Another sergeant, a strict disciplinarian, was also an absolute fanatic on spit and polish, and at all times demanded an immaculate turnout from every boy at the school. His eagle eye, so rumour went, could spot a chin strap the wrong way round on a service dress peaked cap, from one side of the parade ground to the other. The tiny brass rivet which held the buckle on the strap, had to be buttoned to the left side of the hat.
It was with relief that after the six weeks square bashing, this rigorous training came to an end and it was on to workshop practice. Even these instructors were strict and any misdemeanour, talking or not working, meant a run round the drill square carrying a tool box as a punishment — we didn't do this too often. These instructors seemed to forget we were out there for we would have to keep going round the square until we were called in. We certainly learnt the hard way.
Everywhere we went in the camp we would have to parade and march. We had to parade with our mug, knife, fork and spoon for every meal and march to our section of the mess. The meals were always good, so we never had reason to complain, even if we dared.
Besides periods of drill and physical training, we apprentices were required to attend school lessons in map reading and general subjects. In due course most of the boys passed the Army second class certificate of Education examination and some even went on for their First Class. Religious instruction was compulsory, and so were church parades on a Sunday, when you just had to be immaculate.
For recreational activities it was cross country running; this was across the sand dunes at St Peter down to La Corbiere lighthouse and back to St Ouen with no sign of any females en route. On occasions double decker buses took us into St Helier to the pictures, and then it was straight back to the barracks. We were always in uniform, having to be inspected at the guard room before we could leave the barracks. It was an achievement, close to a miracle to pass inspection at the first attempt.
Then to the satisfaction of the Provost Sergeant we were allowed out, though our choice of places was strictly limited for the few hours of freedom. It could be stroll down to Red Houses or St Brelade or down to St Ouen's Bay. This was a quiet beach with no amusements or bronzed girls soaking up the sun on the golden sands. We dared not get dirty, for we had to enter the barracks in the same condition as we went out, and we were usually checked by the Provost staff and often searched to make sure we did not bring any cigarettes in. as we were not allowed to smoke.
We also learned what trumpet calls meant, and what happened if they were not obeyed. Reveille, the first of the day, meant you were out of bed before it finished sounding, or else. Breakfast call came next, calling in to parade to go to the cookhouse. By this time everyone was washed and shaved. Beds made up, kit all cleaned and polished and dressed. After breakfast it was back to the room for final tidy and ready for the parade to take us on to the square.
We always learnt to be ready five minutes before the trumpet call to be inspected by our room NCO. This was the first of the inspections of the day, followed by one from the House Sergeant. The trumpet call then came calling us on to the square — each house marching on in order. It was then the turn of the Sgt Major to inspect us, followed by one of Commanding Officers, and if any fault was found we were in deep trouble. Luckily this did not happen to me, but others were not so fortunate.
The mail call was a popular one, coming any time in the morning, letting us know that letters had arrived from home, always hoping one was for me. These were given out by the Post Corporal at dinnertime. We did get a break in the morning for a cup of Ovaltine, and me being small and underweight, I was entitled to a lump of barley sugar. This did the trick, for I put on weight and grew a little taller, though I still remained one of the smallest.
By now we had got into the routine of the barracks with Commandant's Inspections once a week. Room floors had to be cleaned and polished with the red linoleum down the centre gleaming after being scrubbed and buffed. Beds on that day had to be made up armchair fashion. This involved folding the blankets round the "biscuits" coir mattresses, two for the seat and one for the back support. The final touch was the pillow; it was hard and round and when lightly rolled in a sheet and a blanket to its exact length it was placed on the seat behind the back support where it looked like a gigantic swiss roll.
When we had completed our preparations for the inspection, one would see two precise rows of armchair beds adorned with immaculately polished boots and burnished mess tins. Lo and behold if any fault was found; if any was found it was a repeat performance that evening for the next morning. This didn't happen too often.
Once these weeks of intensive drill were completed and we had settled into the exams, it was time to start in the workshops. We were now to spend hours at a bench learning to handle tools and making test pieces. Our first task was to make a male and female square out of piece of steel four inches by three inches and a half inch thick. The surface had to be filed flat and one long edge chipped flat and level. The other edges had to be filed flat and to the exact dimensions required. Once this was done to the satisfaction of the instructor, we had to mark out and cut a one inch square out of the middle. When this was achieved, another one inch square of steel was fabricated to fit into the square hole already cut. This had to be just a push fit all sixteen ways, which got us into using a rule and vernier gauge. We were checked at every stage by the instructor with a micrometer.
Once this piece had been completed, we progressed on to a male and female sliding dovetail — slightly more complicated - and then on to cutting a square on the end of a round bar to fit into the one inch square hole in our first test piece. Our final piece was to make a small hand vice out of steel, which was to be a part of our toolkit.
I got into this very well, but then had to start getting familiar with vehicles. Our training vehicles were Morris CD petrol six-wheel articulated, one of which was stripped right down to the chassis and the engine and other units sectionised to see how they worked.
Our technical training started with the theory side, such as:
- How an engine works and why
- What is Induction Compression Power and Exhaust.
- The firing order of four cylinder engines. 1342, except a Ford which was 1243 and six cylinders 153624.
- Why a clutch, gearbox and differential in the rear axle.
- The Ackerman theory on steering.
Beside the fuel and ignition systems we had to understand how and why it worked. At this stage it was only petrol engines — diesel and multifuel engines came later.
The barracks was divided into houses similar to a public school, which produced a very competitive spirit. It contained workshops, hospital, church, gymnasium and single storey blocks which were our living quarters. These were surrounded by gardens which we kept planted and the grass cut, all of which was in keeping with the layout of the barracks. We had playing fields and a rifle range with lecture rooms and offices which made it well equipped and self-contained.
Our stay in Jersey was to be short-lived, as war had been declared and was spreading across France. We managed to leave Jersey in December 1939, and again in Easter 1940, to travel home on leave, but I returned to carry on with our training.
By now Dunkirk had been evacuated by the BEF and others were being evacuated along the French coast up to St Malo. In June 1940 the British government decided to demilitarise the island, so we all had to be evacuated to England. Before this could happen, all our equipment had to be packed and crated up. This included all our workshop machinery, which was duly loaded and taken to the docks at St Helier, eventually being shipped to Southampton.
Our daily routine in the week or so before evacuation was to vacate our barrack rooms. This gave shelter to the remnants of the BEF from St Malo, some of whom were wounded. During the day we were crating up the machinery, stores and all the associated equipment of the barracks. During the evenings we were pushing out the training vehicle chassis on to the runways of the adjoining airfield. This was to obstruct and prevent enemy aircraft landing. First thing in the morning we cleared the runways to enable our planes to take off and land.
In an evening, when our chores were completed it was a five mile march to a pre—war holiday camp site which was a collection of small wooden huts, in which we were to sleep. These were crude arrangements with only a central standpipe for water, but breakfast was produced by staff at the barracks and brought to us by our only vehicle — a 30 cwt Morris truck. After reveille and breakfast we would march back to the barracks in service dress with full equipment, in case we had to evacuate suddenly. Fortunately our kit bags were held in stores and had been loaded. This situation was uncertain, not knowing where the enemy would bomb the barracks or even strafe our column of boys in between the barracks and the holiday camp. Mercifully neither happened.
We were now getting concerned about our stay on the island — if and when we would get away. This would all depend on a vessel being available.
At 4.30 pm on 19 June 1940 the fateful time had arrived. A number of double-deck buses arrived at the camp and we embarked for the journey of about 9 miles to the docks at St Helier. This was a memorable occasion, for it was the last time many of us would see the barracks, and the local people had gathered to wish us farewell and goodbye to the island.
The road from St Aubin to the dock at St Helier was lined with lorries loaded with potatoes waiting for available ships to take them to England. But alas these were few, and one of the last to leave was to take us and our stores away from the island. Once aboard the boat it was a wave to those of the local population we were leaving behind and a song from the boys as we set sail.
The journey of about 8 hours was punctuated by several air raid alerts, but due to complete blackout we got to the safety of the English coast with relief.
We eventually arrived at Southampton during an air—raid alarm at midnight. Hurriedly we disembarked in the gloom — through Customs quickly and on to a waiting train to Reading. Here lorries were waiting to take us to Arborfield to arrive in the early hours. We then finished the night out on some straw palliasses on the gymnasium floor — all 240 of us. Our stay there was only to last two days, for we were all documented and sent on leave — not knowing for how long, but hoping we could continue and finish our training.
Eventually we all received the recall notice to report to Dettingen Barracks at Blackdown. Here we found our new barracks was to be some well known "spider huts".
Workshop practical was impossible, but we were given plenty of lectures on theory. Our PT display team toured the local garrison and at Pirbright had the satisfaction of showing the Guards how it should be done. This continued for 10 weeks until October 1940, when we were to move to Aldershot.
Here we were to form the 13th Training Battalion (Boys) RASC at Buller Barracks, which formed part of the Training Brigade. It was from here that we caught up with a lot of equipment from Jersey to carry on with our training. By now all of us had become so proficient at drill and at cleaning our equipment that we became an example to all the recruits being conscripted and passing through the famous Buller Barracks.
While at Aldershot we had further lectures and carried out practical experience on engines. Our technical training continued and also our military training. Church parades on a Sunday were very spectacular with a march usually complete with the RASC Band. All the boys on parade were immaculate, and all the intakes of conscripted men, having just joined the army from civilian jobs, were here for six weeks basic training coming under strict discipline to make soldiers of them, before they were posted to their respective army units.
We assisted these recruits - helping them get their kit highly polished and showing them how drill was done. Six weeks at Buller Barracks was enough, and all these recruits were pleased to leave, although we had to stop for a little longer to complete our training.
It was while I was here that I was admitted to Aldershot Cambridge Military Hospital to have my tonsils removed. After this I had two weeks sick leave to get my voice back, and then it was back to catch up with the training I had missed and pass the exams.
In May 1941 to make up our depleted number, a draft of some 50 boys who had opted for the RASC arrived from Chepstow. It was in August 1941 that rumours started circulating that the Training Battalion was to disband. It was hard to believe that such a fate could overtake this splendid source of trained technicians for the army. The soundness of their training was recognised by all who came in contact with them. It was decided on 24 August 1941 that all the boys were to be transferred to the Army Technical School at Beachley, Chepstow, on 1 September 1941.
After a week of feverish activity it was on Friday 29 August 1941 that a parade and a final inspection was held. The RASC band attended and the Brigade Commander inspected the boys, addressed them and took the march past. The boys, as always, rose to the occasion. They were superb. The final act came on 1 September 1941 with a parade and a great gathering including the Brigadier of the Training Battalion, all the officers and staff of the School with the Corps Band meeting at the railway station to bid the lads farewell. It was a sad moment but it had to be done. As the RASC Band played, the train steamed away taking the lads to Beachley to continue their training.
By the beginning of 1943, having qualified as a Vehicle Mechanic, I was posted to a RASC Transport Unit Workshop to put into practice all I had learnt.
Then in 1944 I was posted to another RASC Workshop for the invasion of France on D-Day, the biggest and most important event of my Army career. But before that was to finish, I had been promoted to a Warrant Officer, second in command of a workshop and continued to train fellow soldiers.