2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry

...a pictorial tribute

Extract from the unpublished memoirs of

John Neill Harris OBE, MC and Bar, BSc

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DESBROW THOMPSON CHAFFE

APPROACHING WAR

 

War was meantime fast approaching. In the spring of 1939 the War minister Leslie Hore-Belisha of yellow beacon fame, doubled the territorial army. Reggie Ferguson and I discussed endlessly in our joint office whether or not we should join up.

 

I lived in digs in Glenloch Road, Hampstead by Belsize Park tube station (with a group of Jewish refugees from Germany: half-board and Sunday lunch £2 per week) and Reggie in West London. He rang a Territorial regiment in Kensington and asked about recruiting days. The answer was Friday evening and Reggie said that was the one day we could not manage. I can still hear the recruiting sergeant's response, did we think the army was there to suit us or vice versa etc. etc.!?  So that was that – pity, because that was a medium gun regiment well back from hand to hand infantry stuff which we did not relish!!

 

Then a friend of Winch's, Jack Hawkins of the Autocar, happened to call into our office. He said he had just joined an armoured car regiment whose HQ was near Lord's Cricket Ground and named the 4th County of London Yeomanry (“Sharpshooters”). That suited me fine and Reggie joined the London Scottish. I went along with Jack in April 1939 to volunteer – as a trooper  (private) quite forgetting that I had passed Certificate A in the school OTC which entitled me to be trained as an officer on the outbreak of war. So I had 18 months in the ranks – no bad thing.

 

Winch had also been involved in our military discussions. His father had been killed in 1918 and he  (like me !) was a member of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union. Spark decided not to join up then and went on the outbreak of war to help in a Governmental scheme to encourage flax growing in South East England. In 1940 the Germans dropped a bomb on a block of flats in South East London killing Spark's mother, sister and aunt. He volunteered for Bomber Command, won a D.F.C, was shot down and was two years a P.O.W. He died in 1999, having worked happily running the Shell experimental farm in Kent.

 

One Friday evening in late August 1939 as I was putting to bed the Irish edition pages of the Farmer and Stockbreeder at Cornwall Press there came a phone message for me to report forthwith to 4CLY which had been mobilised. The Farmer and Stockbreeder management were very supportive: we all had an unwritten promise of employment at war's end and received a very small financial grant throughout the war (I think about £1 weekly for me!). There were enough older men to keep the Farmer and Stockbreeder going until more women and men unfit for active service were recruited.

 

Our regiment had trained every week at Lords and in July 1939 went to camp at Micheldever, Hampshire, in fields which I now pass every time going fishing on the Test. Then in August having reported to the regimental offices that Friday evening we were then sent home to be at 12 hours notice. We were allocated army numbers, mine 7894877. A few armoured cars arrived. There was nowhere to park them and it was decided to put them in an underground car park near Chalk Farm tube station. Down they went via a lift. It was discovered next morning that the lift counterweights were not heavy enough to bring the cars up again. The nearest adequate weights had to be fetched from York!

 

Life was chaotic. We had battledress but no overcoats so we were paid 1s 6d (7p) a week to wear civilian ones! We had no arms. War had been officially declared on Sunday 3 September 1939: we listened to Chamberlain's broadcast wondering what would come next. In fact it was a false air raid warning. The next six months were to constitute the 'Phoney War' when neither side took much action.

 

Late in September 1939 we went off to Woolacombe, a nice Devon seaside resort. I slept in the best room in the Bay Hotel, with half a dozen others. We still had no fighting vehicles, so did only dull routine training – and enjoyed ourselves during a wonderfully sunny autumn. After a month or so I was selected to go on an anti-gas training course at Winterbourne Gunner in Hampshire. How and why I was chosen I have no idea! But it meant I had to be uplifted in rank to corporal. The course taught us to become instructors in how to deal with a gas attack, what precautions to take and so on. Most other NCO's on the course were regulars : I remember amazement at their lighting a cigarette on waking, then entering a violent coughing fit!  We were never to encounter gas in the fighting.

 

At the end of the course there was an exam. As I said above I had always at school and at Wye found I could absorb and retain for a few weeks at lot of information, and had had a good grounding in English. So exams had no terror for me. I returned to the regiment to be told that I had been a credit to the 4CLY and had received a very good report. I would be recommended to be in charge of the anti-gas training centre to produce enough instructors for the whole regiment (600 all ranks), planned for the near future.

 

Then health, rather ill-health, intervened. A few days before I was due to go to my home in Trysull, Staffs on Christmas leave I developed severe cold symptoms, lost my voice and knew I had a temperature. I struggled to Wolverhampton by train where I had to get a porter to ring to tell father that I was at the station. I went straight to bed. Dr. Goldie came that night or the next morning and diagnosed pneumonia – but quickly added that was then much less serious than previously thanks to a new drug called M&B (May & Baker) – the first antibiotic. I had horrible memories of pneumonia, on three or four occasions, including 1917 and at the end of the Easter Term of 1929 when I was in the sanatorium at Mill Hill as the holidays began.

 

By the time I was fit to return (after 3-4 snowy weeks), 4CLY had moved to Worksop in Notts. I arrived there in a bitterly cold early February, and was shortly detailed to head the regimental anti-gas training centre at a requisitioned house called Netherfield on the outskirts of the town. From Worksop I was to go on marriage leave in May. I will elaborate shortly on that critical event in my life.

 

I had one narrow squeak at Worksop. Every Sunday morning one set of students left the Gas School and another arrived, lorries bringing and removing heavy kit. I came out of Netherfield House to find one such lorry departing for the town a mile away where we fed. I jumped aboard alongside the driver. He dropped me, then proceeded to his own squadron HQ and went off to lunch. The Orderly Officer passing by that HQ had a look at the said lorry and saw in the back a dozen or so rifles. Now, in the British Army a soldier is required to guard his rifle with his life. Who was responsible, wondered the OO, for this breach of discipline that left a heap of rifles there for the taking by any terrorist? Alarm bells rang!

 

When I arrived back at Netherfield, blissfully ignorant of all this kerfuffle, I was met by the said OO and told I was under arrest. He had discovered he said that I had "assumed command" of the lorry in question, being a corporal and the driver a trooper. I was hauled before my squadron leader and advised of the seriousness of this ghastly lapse of duty, a matter which might result in court martial and so on. I was saved by an officer of my squadron, one Sandy Scratchley. Sandy was a famous hurdle race amateur jockey, the best of his time, a man of great common sense who saw such innocent derelictions of duty in their proper perspective. He intervened on my behalf, said I was a useful NCO and so on. The Squadron Leader took heed and the matter was dropped. The driver is to this day on the Committee of Sharpshooters Old Comrades Association and we have exchanged recollections of these events!

 

In retrospect this incident seems trivial, but has to be seen against a chaotic time when Hitler's armies were expected to invade, and fifth columnists to lurk round every street corner looking for arms in due course to use against their own countrymen. By now the German armies were streaming across Europe and in June was to come the Dunkirk rescue.

 

VII   A WARTIME MARRIAGE

 

The long expected end to the Phoney War which had lasted since September 1939 finally came on Friday morning 10 May 1940. I had a 72 hour pass to proceed (as the army verb always had it!) that very afternoon on marriage leave. All leave for all services was cancelled on the Friday morning, but a friendly adjutant (Gerald Walker of Johnny Walker whisky, alas later k.i.a.) came to the rescue of Corporal Harris and issued a pass reading 'proceeding on training course'. Our best man, brother Mike, was held up in London on short notice to go with his battery to France. Other guests had to cancel, for the country was in chaos.

Nevertheless our marriage by Vicar Bennett in All Saints, Trysull, went off well.  

 

At the end of our brief honeymoon I returned to my regiment which by then was in a tented camp in Clumber Park in the Nottinghamshire Dukeries with some elements on the East Anglian coast expecting German invasion, armed only with rifles and a few rounds of ammunition. I dread to think what would have happened if the Germans had come!

 

VIII   THE GUARDS AND SANDHURST

 

A fortnight before Dunkirk I had been sent to spend two weeks with four other sergeants (a rank I had lately attained) for training in drill at the Chelsea Guards Barracks. What that had to do with warfare in armoured cars or tanks I know not. But we had as second-in-command of 4CLY a Guardsman relative of Anthony Eden!

After 5 or 6 days soldiers came back from Dunkirk in their thousands, our course was cancelled and back we went to 4CLY. We sergeants were not sorry to be returned to our regiment. The discipline at the Guards depot was ferocious, any soldier returning from Dunkirk without his rifle was, for instance, automatically put on a charge.  Our first afternoon we were detailed for P.T. and turned out in our motley gear of coloured rugby shirts etc. As we crossed the parade ground there was a great roar from the orderly sergeant : who are those horrible men, arrest them!  We were within minutes in the QM stores issued with army vests, regulation soccer style shorts and worst of all brown gym shoes.

 

The regiment was now under canvas in a splendid park outside Kettering. It was equipped with cruiser tanks and moving fast toward readiness for action. One day in July 1940 my squadron leader, George Kidston, a regular cavalryman of some renown who was in due course to command the Sharpshooters, asked me whether I would like to be recommended for the Royal Armoured Corps Officer Training Unit at Sandhurst, Camberley in Surrey. So there I went in August. Kidston's decision to let me go may have been influenced by the fact that I was something of an oddity having missed troop training with the tanks because of Netherfield, the Guards course etc.

 

Off I went to Sandhurst in August. There were about 20 of us in No 25 Troop, at least half straight from civilian life, others like me risen from the ranks. As a sergeant from a very fine regiment I knew more about the army than most of them, or thought so, and was a fairly easy going cadet.

 

We cadets were assigned certain senior other ranks' jobs for a week at a time and I gained some notoriety one Saturday night when Guard Commander on the Yorktown Gate into Camberley High St.. In the middle of the night two rather drunk regular staff sergeants who trained us cadets came bellowing into the Guard tent using colourful language to the effect that the sentry on duty was an idle so-and-so, typical of all the useless cadets. One of them announced that he would demonstrate his opinions, and promptly relieved himself in the entrance to 'my' guardroom. Aware of the military procedure in such matters I shouted "Turn Out the Guard" and told them to put the staff sergeant under close arrest in the back of the guardroom and take off his boots. I was later told that no cadet had ever done such a thing.

 

The other staff sergeant had meanwhile beat it to the Main Building and the Orderly Officer, a peacetime Beaverbrook man named Mike Wardell, came to our guardroom. He ordered that the prisoner be temporarily released 'without prejudice'. Next morning I had to fill in the Official Guard Report which required a list of prisoners. I entered my released prisoner's name.

 

All hell let loose when one Brand, the Regimental Sergeant Major, a figure of great significance at Sandhurst, heard what had happened to one of 'his' staff sergeants. A major enquiry took place, in the course of which the Adjutant who virtually ran the RAC wing sent for me. He took my side but said he simply could not do so publicly – though this affair was to have a considerable influence on my military career.

 

Our course, which included a visit to Lulworth to shoot from tanks, ended in mid-December with the usual passing out exams. I had been a figure of modest stature so far, but the exams were just my cup of tea and I was awarded the one 'A' in the troop.  

 

I had already decided to join the Royal Tank Regiment if I passed out successfully, mainly because this modern set-up, dating only from the end of the First World War, comprised ordinary blokes without great cavalry traditions and in which officers were expected to be able to live on their pay – very unlike, for example, 4CLY. The adjutant sent for me, recalled the Yorktown Gate incident, proclaimed his congratulations on the 'A' and said that of course I must go to  a regular cavalry regiment. He would fix things for me. Would I like to return to the CLY or this or that famous regiment? I declined, to his astonishment, but he accepted what I said about the money side. I should go away and return next day by which time he would have thought the matter through. Next day he said he had spoken to a relative of his in the 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry. They were short of officers, had no high faluting messing charges, would love to have me, and so on. I accepted.

 

 

b 2 June 1914 d 25 October 2009