War on Wheels

War on Wheels
Book cover

A Craftsman’s Memories

Robert Snary sent me this piece. REME was created in 1942 from the RAOC and took over most of its maintenance and repair activities.

"These are some of the stories that my dad told me of his life/career when in the Army.

He was called up in 1942 at the age of 18 and initially his basic training was for the Rifle Brigade. However, the way of the army was such that, when phase 1 of the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers was formed, he was transferred to the REME. It would have been a nightmare to have been on parade in those days due to the fact he was used to the Rifles Drill ((180 to the minute) and others would have had drill from other corps’ or regiments.

Unfortunately my dad passed away in January 2016 (3 days short of his 92nd Birthday) and, at the time he was telling me these stories, I did not record them, so any forgotten names etc. are down to me, although with some of the tales it may be best to protect the not so innocent.

Call Up

My dad was called up from Edmonton to York and he perhaps was fortunate as he was the youngest of 7 and his 3 brothers and some of his cousins had all been called up before him. His father had been a volunteer in WW1 as a sapper and survived being gassed in the trenches. As his mother waved him off at Kings Cross Station she was crying and one of the same intake had a go at my dad claiming that his mother had seen him off without crying, so what was wrong? My dad’s response was that she had already seen 3 sons and her eldest grandson into the army and it was earlier that year they had the news that his eldest brother John (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship Gunner Royal Artillery Maritime Regiment) had been lost at sea. The one from his intake was taken aback and apparently muttered an apology; later that night this particular recruit passed away due to an allergic reaction to the vaccinations given. So problems with vaccines in the army are nothing new.

On arrival at York Barracks they were met by that bastion of the British Army the Senior NCO who ordered them to leave the station and go round the corner to where there would be transport to the Barracks at Fulford Road, York. Yes, Transport indeed! Form up in ranks of 3 and the transport was to march. Given that they were all shapes and sizes and had all been called up from civilian life and were carrying essentials in a variety of cases, rucksacks or bags, it made for a sight that earned a lot of jeering from those towards the end of their basic training. My dad always said it was strange that, as they got close to the barracks, there was a band and the music caused them to straighten up, lose their fatigue and also fall into step. He didn’t ever recall if they started singing the words, but I can always remember him coming out with alternative words to various regimental marches and of course Colonel Bogey (B@@@ocks and the same to you, B@@@ocks they make a fine good stew etc.).

Towards the very end, when he was in a nursing home after stroke and seizure and he couldn’t recognise me as his son but instead thought I was his next eldest brother, I played him a recording of the original REME March (Lillibullero going into Heigh-Ho) and, even though he was in bed and had difficulty moving, he immeaditaly forced himself to attention.

Initial Training

Dad never really mentioned too much about this, except, when I joined the ATC and was going on camp, he advised me to always avoid walking over the “Holy of Holies” (the Parade Square) and, when I went .303 shooting, he told me all the steps of how to load the magazine, insert the magazine and how to clear a misfire, all from memory: Army training lived on. This even showed when we went to the Royal Gunpowder Mills Museum and the Armoury in 2013 and he was handed both a Lee-Enfield 303 and a Sten and he could remember all the drills on both without any prompting

The only bit he really mentioned about initial training was “Uncle Ben’s Battle School” which was live fire training and covered things like how to cross barbed wire, trenches, clearing the enemy etc. The main thing he mentioned was about Uncle Ben, as everyone called him, who was a regular officer and that, when my dad received a telegram that his mother was dying from Bowel Cancer and he needed compassionate leave to get home, Uncle Ben ordered his driver to take my dad to the station so he could get the first train. He sorted out all the paperwork himself as the orderly officer was busy, and when my dad had his leave chit and warrant and the driver wasn’t present,  Uncle Ben drove the car himself so as to ensure my dad got the first train. He also arranged that, until the funeral was held, my dad was given a temporary posting to the TA centre at Tottenham. The driver ended up on a fizzer.

During his training at Wandsworth, one of the people on the same course as him had been called up from working in the fairground and Dad always remarked that there was nothing mechanical nor an engine that he couldn’t fix. Fairgrounds were still allowed, as they provided a chance for the public to have some sense of normality as well as being a source of power in the event of airraids damaging power stations. (A typical showman’s engine could generate 110V @ 300-400 Amps!!). The CFM from the fairground couldn’t read or write, but was so good at his work that the officers used to ask him the questions in the trade tests and write his answers down for him; sadly I can’t remember his name. There was also the upside that, as the one from the fairground used to moonlight by doing some maintenance on the rides in the evenings, all of the REME on the course at Wandsworth were allowed free rides any time they wanted.

Posting to the REME

During his time with the REME Dad ended up in various barracks, some he said he liked compared to others. He always reckoned the worst posting was to Woolwich Arsenal, as there all the married personnel from the London area had SOP’s (Sleeping Out Passes) whereas, he wasn’t married, so ended up having to do guard duty as well as all the day to day chores with being in barracks. Also at Woolwich, the standard day to day orders were that all steel helmets had to be Blancoed (so that in the black out they could be seen), as the standard battle bowler was sand blasted it never had a good finish which meant more cleaning duties!!!

Dad ended up after various courses (some successful some not) as a Hammer Man, with 13 AA Workshop at Kippings Cross (near Paddock Wood Kent). This was where he met up with Jimmy Hicks, a chap from Birmingham nicknamed ”Ikey” and Hot & Cold, who got the nickname by having a jug of cold water, a tin over a Bunsen with Hot water & the Petroleum Jelly (used for protecting battery terminals) as a substitute for Brylcreme. This was so that, when they were going on a weekend pass, they could quickly clean up and get an early bus to Tonbridge rather than back to barracks for a clean-up and join the throng. The team also had a routine where, if anyone was on leave, they kept their place in the barracks to avoid strangers coming in.

There are numerous stories my dad had about his time at Kippings Cross, including how they managed to get hold of some blank leave passes so spent several weekends on extra leave so he could get home a bit more often. It was on one of these occasions that he got a lift back in a police car and he asked if they wanted to see the leave chit and the police officer said, 'no we know all your officers'. Dad's unspoken thought was, you don’t know this one.

Getting the train to and from London was a bit of a cheat as they used to get tickets from Tonbridge to London Bridge but get off at New Cross, as the Rad Caps were only at the main stations and also at the smaller stations there were very few ticket inspectors so the tickets weren’t checked as thoroughly, also by buying platform tickets the same tickets could last several months,

Americans & D-day

In the lead up to D-Day there were obviously a lot more Americans around and, yes, there were comments thrown both ways mainly good humoured. At times the Americans were very useful in giving lifts from the stations to the barracks, although the rear raised seat in a Willys Jeep was not the most comfortable; plus the Americans never stopped for the RMP!.

Dad always joked, that in May 44 there was a group of American GIs marching through Tonbridge. It was a warm day. The officer was in front singing the cadence and there was a Walls “Stop Me & Buy One” Ice Cream Bike. The NCOs broke ranks, followed by the GIs leaving the Rupert marching on his own. After they had their ice-creams they just formed up and marched along on their own. Did they ever catch up with the officer or did he even realise?

It was also in May & June 44 that the LAD were ordered to move out of their Nissan Huts into bell tents, so that the US troops could have the huts. They never saw any of them and when, at the end of June, they moved back in to the huts all they could see were spiders webs and of course a general bollocking for having spiders in their huts. It wasn’t until after the war that dad realised this was all part of Operation Fortitude South and the imaginary First US Army Group under Patton that the Germans thought was heading for the Pas De Calais region. There is another tale about the Americans later.

AA Guns & Divers

After D-Day, the V1 Menace started and these were code named Divers. As part of the defences against the V1’s all the AA Guns were moved down to Kent and the south east. The defences were first, aircraft over the sea and these tried to shoot them down. Although the idea of flying through a space where 1 ton of explosives has just detonated wasn’t a good one. As an alternative, in aircraft like the Tempest and Typhoon the pilots would fly alongside the V1 and then tip the wings causing the gyros to topple and so the missile to crash out of control.

From the Coast to Sevenoaks it was the 3.7 & 4.5 AA Guns and then from Sevenoaks in it was the Barrage Balloons. My Dad always said he felt sorry for the ATS girls with the balloons as, if they brought anything down, it would crash into them and the balloons, which had cylinders of hydrogen, which would explode.

When Ikey complained that it wasn’t fair, as he couldn’t get home to Birmingham on a weekend pass, but the London lads could, they invitedhim to come and stay with them.  However, he thought that London was too dangerous with the V1’s and the bombs. A few V1s were launched to hit cities in the Midlands and, when that happened, apparently Ikey wanted to consider suing for peace as it was affecting his home city.

Moving the guns had one problem in that the RA Gunners were very enthusiastic and would try and engage at low levels of elevation which meant that a gun in front could be taken out by muzzle blast or even a direct hit (Blue on Blue). So the guns were all modified by having a plate which, as the gun traversed, would force the barrel up to prevent friendly fire damage.  Of course, being an AA LAD dad and his cohorts were busy doing the modifications. I have already mentioned about the one from the fairground who couldn’t read or write but had great mechanical knowledge. Another of the 13AA Workshop was nicknamed the Professor (and that was always how dad called him, never any other name) the difference being was that the professor could write it all down, and talk the talk, but when it came to doing it had no mechanical skills whatsoever; in fact dad reckoned he should have been put up for an Iron Cross as every gun he modified ended up out of service.

Other things that went on at Paddock Wood, including the workshop converting a barn at the Blue Boys to become a small theatre and cinema which was used to entertain the troops as well as the locals, although the only time Dad saw an ENSA show was at West Ham Football Ground (more later).

In the August & September of 44, the troops were encouraged to help the local farmers with the harvest which for some of them meant depending on the farmer, so they ended up with either cash or food which was either used to boost their own rations or sent home. One of the local orchards used to deliver a basket of apples every Friday, so that those going on leave at the weekend could take fresh fruit home. Another farmer, though, had them in the field cutting wheat all day using a scythe and said that he would inform the officer that they were lazy as they didn’t cut as much as his normal labourers, who had been called up, had cut; needless to say that farmer didn’t get any further help.

December 44

In December 44 the 13AA Workshop transferred to Swansea and became the 9th AA Workshop Company and this was where Dad first came across the Royal British Legion and although he supported the Poppy Appeal he never wanted anything else to do with the RBL. You  have to remember that in 44 (and for a long time afterwards) Wales was dry on a Sunday and it was a cold wet Sunday Evening with the NAAFI closed that several cold thirsty craftsmen were looking for somewhere they could find a welcome and a drink. The only options were the chapels which were dry and of course sermons so dad and others asked a policeman who told them it would be a bit of a long shot but they could try the RBL, because, as service men, they might be made welcome. When they got to the Swansea RDL they were told in no uncertain terms to go away as they “Weren’t Members and were Bloody English!”

The posting to Swansea was very brief as it was just one month as the Workshop was heading for Belgium, on the 3rd of Jan 45 the Workshop departed for Purfleet to embark to Ostend. This was where a Red Cap motorcycle outrider proved to be human, as my dad commented that they would be going round the North Circular Road via Edmonton. The Rad Cap gave my dad a ride on the pillion so he could see his dad; they then caught up with the convoy before they got to the Purfleet. Dad always commented that they were taken to the West Ham Football Ground where there was an ENSA show and, just as they got settled in, the workshop was called for embarking and the comments from other troops was they must be desperately needed as they have only just arrived.

The workshop embarked on 3 American Landing Ship Tanks (LST) for an escorted crossing to Ostend to provide protection from E-Boats. The LST my dad was hit on the side of Tilbury Docks and was held back for repairs as it was holed and quite badly damaged. As the troops had all had their English money taken off them and exchanged for occupation currency, they were unable to buy any drinks and the only food they were offered were Soya Links (Sausages) by the LST Crew. The only polite things that my dad would say about these were that they should have been banned under the Geneva Convention. His other memories were German POW’s being marched off LST’s under guard and especially the younger POW’s including Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) spitting at them, the British were commenting back things like “at least we aren’t prisoners”.

After repairs, the LST left unescorted and eventually reached Ostend on 7th Jan and the Workshop went to Mechelen (Malines) in Belgium and was working on AA Guns & searchlights. It is at this point one of his brothers came to see him and asked the duty NCO for Private Snary. His brother was told we don’t have privates, we have Craftsmen but the NCO didn’t recognise the name and was asked to describe him. When my Uncle Joe said about my dad having bright red hair, the NCO said “Oh you mean Ginger” and apparently everyone knew my dad as that.

Whilst at Maline there was an accident where one of the CFN fell through a roof on to machinery (whilst trying to fix a leak in the roof) and was killed. Part of the reason for the death was that the local mayor refused to let the level crossing be raised and a train delayed for the ambulance. As the CFN was married, the CO, the Officers and all the ranks had a whip round for the widow and the CO ordered that the workshop make the coffin.

On VE day the workshop had been assigned a RSM who was sent to them from the glasshouse (where he had been relieved from duty due to mistreating a prisoner). On VE Night the RSM saw several members of the LAD walking around not wearing forage caps and threatened to put them all on a charge; the RSM ended up in the canal. The next morning he had the whole workshop on parade demanding to find out who the culprits were or they would all be on a charge. When the old man came down to the parade area and announced that the RSM had been observed by the officers as being drunk and he had just fallen into the canal, the parade was dismissed. The RSM was soon posted. (Note dad always referred to him as an RSM not as an ASM)

With VE-Day, Montgomery proved himself very unpopular with the British troops as Eisenhower as Supreme Commander had ordered that all troops in Europe were to get a Day’s rest to mark VE Day, with those having to be on duty getting the next day off. Montgomery ordered that all British Troops were to attend a church parade. Eisenhower countermanded that order with the comment that on the Sunday there would be special prayers and services if the troops wanted to go to church they could, but it was to be a rest day.

The 9th AA workshop became part of the 4th General Troops workshop and was moved to the Heysel Stadium in Brussels and dad was billeted in a house near to where the Atomium is now in Brussels. When we went there in 1997, the house was still there and it was still occupied by members of the family dad was billeted with.

In Brussels there was the Ardennes Club which was run by the Americans and, when dad and some of the workshop tried to go in, there one of two GIs said they couldn’t enter, as the Ardennes club was for US troops only. The other one said if it wasn’t, since, but for the British troops rescuing the Americans in the Battle of the Bulge and Ardennes, there wouldn’t be an Ardennes club. He punched the first GI’s lights out and invited them in and paid for all the drinks (I have a not very good picture of Jimmy Hicks, my dad & “Hot & Cold” in the club).

Another one of the workshop was Bertie Pask who was a driver, but in civilian life worked in a bakery so he ended up seconded as the workshop cook and could turn army ration packs into decent food. Not even he could do things with one lot of rations which when the packs were opened turned out to be bricks. Apparently there were light fingered people in the docks who substituted the army rations for bricks so as to sell the food on the black market.

At Heysel there was a fire in the battery charging room caused by hydrogen from gassing batteries igniting and dad was first on the scene putting into practice the skills he picked up avoiding church parade. When the duty officer got there, the fire was out but he claimed that my dad was holding the nozzle incorrectly and took it off him and ended up soaking them both. My dad’s comments matched his red hair and the duty officer wanted to press charges but the old man turned round and said that “Ginger didn’t suffer fools lightly”. When others in the workshop were posted to other duties, dad had to stay in Brussels as there was an enquiry into the fire.

There was also an enquiry into the activities of a Captain Black, who after VE Day disappeared with his batman and was touring around Belgium, Holland & Germany scrounging food and fuel off the Americans. Capt. Black only returned to the workshop as his batman was due to be demobbed. The first person he met back at the workshop was my dad so he again had to stay for the enquiry.

As my dad came up for demob he had some overseas leave in Paris and I have a photo of him plus a number of British Troops & RAF personnel at the Arc de Triomphe.

On Demob (September 47) my dad had to go back to Fulford Barracks York where he was playing football as a goalkeeper and doing his usual trick of diving for the ball even if it was at another players boot. His Om had asked him if he wanted to stay on adding that he would ensure he kept with the same workshop, but dad felt he needed to get back to civilian life and settle down. The officer on his demob interview apparently asked he if he was sane and dad always says his response was “Yes as I’m not staying in Sir”and the officer replied “Well having seen you play football this morning I could question your sanity the way you dive for the ball”.  After his service dad stayed on the Army reserve until February 54 and always said that the army was a good time for him and he enjoyed his time in there as well as making friends, one of them was a person who was on a course with him at Bristol and ended up as my god father.

Sadly Frank Snary CFN 14559895 was called to the final parade on 23/1/2016 3 days before his 92nd birthday so all the memories I have recorded are from what he told me and not all the names can be added to. There are a few other stories which relate less to army life and more as to how they British got on with the civilian populations in Europe  these included: -

A French woman who complained that the Germans had shot and killed her husband.  When she was asked what was he doing, she said he was sabotaging one of the railway engines. She didn’t like being told that, if he was found doing that by the allied troops during the war, they would have done the same thing.

The family he was billeted with in Mechelen were half Flemish (Husband) and Half Walloon(Wife) (French part of Belgium) and the only common language they had was English, so he didn’t have to learn any languages. Their daughter was a teacher and used to explain to the UK troops about the local customs. On one of the days there was a church festival and the teacher explained that all the girls wearing gloves in the festival were virgins, when they asked why certain of the girls who had earned a living in the German Army Brothel (and had carried on their trade post liberation) were wearing gloves, she said well we all make mistakes.

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