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Bill Brown’s Memoir

Chapters six of Bill Brown’s service memoir, in which he oversees the formation of his fledgling Special Signals unit and ponders the likely deterrent effect of his two Raleigh bicycles on German armoured units. The theatre of operations remains an intriguing secret.

Special Signals Duties Under Training

Franks and I duly reported to Turner in the large Assembly hall at 0800 the following morning for a pre-full meeting of all personnel who would form the make up of the two Special Signals Units. We found Turner already in the hall when we arrived and made our way up to the dais to join him at the long trestle table. A brief greeting and then Bob dived straight into the substance of the meeting. He prefaced his explanations with a quick resume of the background to Combined Operations, for the benefit of Franks, who had not, as yet, had the advantage of being able to read the Top Secret file.

Having brought my colleague up to date as far as possible, Turner turned to the meeting itself in which he proposed to give us all the details of the make up of our two Units, the type of training we would have to face including the information that we would be very much operating far from base and would be entirely self -supporting and virtually, a law unto ourselves, although, of course, we would have to ultimately explain our actions. We would be living under canvas and every man, including the CO’s would be fully capable of taking over another man’s duties if the duty man was incapacitated in some way or other. Each one of use would have to be prepared to drive any vehicle that came to hand and to exist on anything that was edible if rations were held up anywhere. He concluded saying that details of men and equipment would be notified when the full meeting assembled at 0900.

It was getting on for 0900 hours, so Turner suggested we got hold of pens and papers and get ready for the invasion of the men who would form our two teams.

A few minutes before 0900 and the doors opened and in came our merry men. I was pleasantly surprised to note that the Senior NCOs had formed them into an orderly file and marched them into the hut. Calling them to attention one of the two Flight Sergeants stepped up to the dais and saluted Flt Lt Turner and reporting all men present and correct. Acknowledging the salute, Bob told the NCO to get the men settled and the meeting would commence immediately. A few minutes of scraping feet and chairs and satisfied that all were now in place and a nod from Bob, the Flight Sergeant, walked back to the remaining empty chair on the front row.

“Good morning Gentlemen” began Turner and then, without any other introductory words, began by a quick reference to the Wing Commander’s speech of yesterday on to the formation of the two units. Each Unit would have a personnel strength of one Officer, two Senior NCO’s, five Junior NCO’s, fifteen LAC’s and AC’s including R/T-D/F Operators. All personnel would be technically trained, there would be no administrative personnel on the strength. It vaguely crossed my mind that maybe I would be landed with paperwork.

We moved on to equipment. Again, each Unit would have its own complement of transport. One Type 103ZZ D/F Tender, two 30 cwt, with tarpaulin covers, the vehicles of Dennis Manufacture, one Matchless motor cycle and two Raleigh push bikes. I allowed my thoughts to wander for a moment – I smiled as I visualised the look of abject fear and terror on the face of a German Panzer tank driver seeing a couple of Raleigh bicycles bearing down on him. I quickly pulled myself from this momentary lapse to rejoin the talk.

Boxes of tools would, of course, be included and from the list of contents noted, there was a tool for just about every eventuality. Electrical, radio and tools for motor vehicles, even blow lamps for repairs and finally a comprehensive medical kit – “and snow chains?” I asked, in what I hoped was a very innocent tone of voice. Bob Turner looked at me for a moment, “nice try Bill, but I’m not falling for that one”. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. Oh well, it was worth a try. Turner continued “Nowhere will you find the slightest indication of a location. All equipment you will be issued with will work equally well in Tropical or Arctic conditions”. In an aside he added, “satisfied Bill?”

The Flight Lieutenant’s next piece of information was to introduce the commanding Officers of the two Special Signals Units, Flying Officer Brown, to be in charge of No 1 Signals Unit and Flying Officer Franks would be responsible for No 2 Signals Unit. He added that these would be references during training but when the operation was mounted the titles would be different. He gave no hint on their likely form. From the previous information on the strengths of the Units, it would seem that each would consist of one Officer and twenty two other ranks.

Concluding his opening address and the details of the units, Bob looked down at a sheaf of papers in front of him and looking up called the two Flight Sergeants over and handed them a wad of paper with the name of a man and next to it the figure 1 or 2, indicating the Unit to which each had been posted. The papers were distributed by the two Senior NCOs and the men directed to occupy the left hand side or right hand side of the central aisle. Some minutes passed before all men were settled in their respective positions. Franks and I had been handed copies of the list of men in our respective Units and I noted that 50 names were printed on the sheets. I took the opportunity while the papers were being distributed of querying the numbers. Why 50 when the total was only 44? “All in good time” was Bob’s reply.

The assembled company, having finally separated into their respective positions on either side of the aisle, relative silence descended apart from the odd cough and the subdued hum of suppressed voices they waited expectantly for the next phase of the meeting to continue. A few more general words from Flight Lieutenant Turner, he finalised his address by saying that he would now hand the meeting over to the two respective Commanding Officers who would introduce themselves to their men and interview each one separately to get to know each member of the team - an essential ingredient for units such as Special Signals Units. He turned to Franks and me, “The next hut is not in use this morning, so I have arranged for one of you two chaps to move in there with his gang, the other to stay here, so that you don’t interfere with each other’s interviewing. You can sort it out between yourselves which one uses which hut, so I’ll leave you to it”. Leaving us he passed out of the hall and Franks and I tossed up for the neighbouring hut. Number two Signals Unit won, so Franks led his men out of the Assembly Hall.

Waiting for all the men of No 2 Signals Unit to leave, I looked at the 25 faces waiting with ill-concealed curiosity before me, waiting to hear anything they could about what lay in front of them. Taking a deep breath I called the company to order, almost shouting the first few words and then, pulling myself together continued in a more normal tone and pitch of voice. A few brief preliminaries, I came to the purpose of this meeting, getting to know my team. I looked down at my list and called out the name at the head of the paper, “Flight Sergeant Farrell”. A dark haired man of medium build stood up smartly to attention. I looked at him for a moment and then invited him to join me at the trestle table. “Come on up her Flight, you can help me to take down some details”. He came up the couple steps of the dais and sat down on the chair next to me. My first impression – I liked the way he conducted himself and presenting a picture of a man who would not get into a flap in adverse situations.

For the rest of the morning we waded through the list of names, taking down all the details and having a few general words with each man and trying to form an at first sight impression. Previous experiences and postings, of course, but I hoped to be able, perhaps, to probe a little into their background and get some idea of their overall character. There were two Senior NCOs on my strength and the second one, Sergeant Stubbs, also a regular as was Farrell, a fair haired chap of a somewhat heavier build than the Flight Sergeant, was also presenting a confident front. So far, I was lucky to have a couple of good types as Senior NCOs.

Some of the Junior NCOs were regulars and generally I was quite happy with the quality of those I had so far interviewed. One of the Hostilities Only chaps, a very tall bespectacled man, was a librarian from Leeds in civvy life. He had volunteered for Special Signals Duties and was looking forward to seeing some real activity. He had a very pleasing personality with a very easy-going manner, but I felt sure that he would be more at home behind a desk in some Headquarters or other. However, he obviously knew his trade very well and in spite of some misgivings I couldn’t help liking the chap; he seemed keen enough and he seemed to be reliable. Oh well, only time would tell.

Two of the team were New Zealanders. Both impressed me particularly. Named Lobban and Sumner they had volunteered to come all the way from the other side of the world to fight for the old country and now had again been in the forefront of volunteers when calls were made for interested parties to join Special Signals Duties under Training. Both men had that wide open spaces look with faces that had been exposed to a lot of sunshine.

Corporal Illingworth, was from Yorkshire, and a little Jew from Glasgow, LAC Shieff. The interviewing continued until the lunch break when I dismissed the men with orders to report back at the Assembly Hall at 1400 hours. I watched them file out, yes Shieff and Illingworth were both likely lads. So far I was more than pleased with those I had so far interviewed. The last man went out and for a moment I was alone. I let my mind wander, just what did the future hold for us all. Where were we going? Where would we be in a month’s time, or at the end of the year? I looked down at the pile of papers and slowly tapped together into a neat pile and slipped them into a pocket file and followed the men out into the lovely warm June sunshine and headed for the Gun Room bar to see how Franky was getting on with his interviewing.

Over a pint Franks and I compared notes and exchanged views on the morning’s work. One or two of Franky’s men had yet to be seen, so I suggested that he completed his talks with them in the Assembly Hall for half an hour as I had finished meeting all of my team who had arrived. I called in on Turner and explained the situation. He was quite happy and said he would come over to the Assembly Hall at 1500 hours to complete his briefing. I contacted Flight Sergeant Farrell and reorganised the men for attendance at 1500 in the big hall.

Franks had just finished his interviewing when I arrived with my men and following me in was Flt Lt Turner. We all had our seats so getting settled did not take long and within minutes a description of the course in front of us was laid before us. It was scheduled to last about six weeks. It was not possible to give a precise date at this stage, as much depended on the state of hostilities, plus many other factors at present unknown to us. Also, a very interesting piece of information: we learned for the first time that the United States of America would be sharing the operation with us. At present, America was recruiting, drilling, equipping and generally shaking down personnel for the armed services and at the present moment had insufficient numbers of troops ready and available for combat duties and were unable to deploy fully-trained and armed men to a new theatre of war. Quite a thought.

Turning to the many and varied aspects of the course, the list was quite formidable. Not surprisingly, basic drill and physical training would form a backbone to the activities, including forced marches with full pack, camping in open countryside in all types of weather and the art of camouflage. Arms of all types would occupy a large part of the course and would include Allied weaponry and captured enemy arms. Basic Infantry training, including bayonet drill and hand grenades, all would play a part. Swimming was encouraged, although as Bob later observed “you would have to be a bloody good swimmer to keep afloat and going with a full pack and wearing ammo boots. You may be lucky enough to manage dump the pack but don’t count on it”.

Motor transport would also play a large part of the training, each and every man would have to be able to drive any vehicle that came into his hand, allied or enemy and basic roadside repairs would also have to be tackled. A couple of German trucks were on the camp and would be available for instructional purposes during the course. There would be periodical field exercises out in the Scottish countryside, which would also be used to asses the progress of the students and the equipment. These exercises would be conducted in conditions similar to those that would be faced when the real thing happened. Physical fitness, living on minimum rations, camouflage, map reading and a nodding acquaintance with natural navigation will be very useful and is to be encouraged. “I think that covers about all you need to know for the immediate future”.

Flight Lieutenant Turner concluded his resume of the course, adding that the course would start on the 24 June, just two days ahead, adding that “You will now be allowed ashore from 1700 hours until 2359 and the whole day tomorrow, after roll call in the morning until midnight”. It was obviously well received, bringing smiles all round. The excited chatter that followed his announcement was cut short by Turner reminding everyone that they would have to change into regular Royal Air Force uniform. He went on “also, don’t
forget that absolutely no reference whatsoever, not the slightest hint of any specialist duties or training, any failure to observe these instructions will result in a Court Martial with very unpleasant punishment to follow”. Visions of firing squads followed to mind. “All right, dismiss”. He turned to Franks and me, “Come over to the office with me, there are a few things you will have to know”.

Once in his office formalities were dropped and in a relaxed atmosphere Bob opened the conversation, “You asked this morning why fifty names were on the lists when only 44 will be required, 22 for each unit.” I nodded and he went on, “This applies to you both. At present you have 25 names for each team, the extra three being in the nature of reserves. During the course you will assess the progress of all 25 and sift out those that you do not consider capable of pulling their weight, especially in an emergency”.

He went on to explain what he had in mind. During the course we would have to submit or at least keep weekly reports on the potential capabilities of each man, assess his abilities and demeanour and reaction to staged hostile conditions and situations. Also to be considered the ability of each man to step into the shoes of another in an emergency or for whatever reason the incapacity of any man to carry out his duties. “That goes for you two as well” added Bob, addressing his remarks to Franks and me. “You will have to be able to man the radio sets, repair them with whatever materials you have to hand, drive trucks and military vehicles of all sorts and types, motor cycles and push bikes”. I smiled. “What’s on your mind Bill?” asked Bob.

I put into words a thought that had crossed my mind earlier in briefing session. “I’m just trying to imagine the look of fear and abject terror on the face of a Panzer driver as he suddenly sees a couple of push bikes bearing down upon him.” Smiles all round. “I don’t envisage direct hostile action will have a very high priority in the thinking behind the whole operation and won’t form part of your training as far as push bikes are concerned.”

At the end of the course you will be required to give a full report on the performance of each man, asses his abilities, his reaction under fire and at an end of course meeting you will put forward those names you consider to be best suited to the operational conditions before you. You will both work with your men as a team and will carry out precisely the same duties as your men, you will not be armchair Generals. At the end of the course and the subsequent selection meeting, 22 names will be submitted. Postings, will of course emanate from personnel, but you will in effect, choose your own team of 22 required to make up the Unit. You will have to be very, very sure of your final choices, as you will be entirely responsible for the operational efficiency, devotion to duty and loyalty of your team. Do not forget that you cannot afford to carry any passengers. I cannot emphasise too strongly that you must be completely satisfied that every name you put forward is capable of doing his bit.”

Bob sat back and for a moment or two there was silence

as his words sank in. It was a sobering thought, given an added nudge that Franks and I would also be assessed on our showing by our instructors. “Well chaps, that’s about enough gen for you to digest for today, so shove off into Troon and see if you can cheer up the female population of that pleasant little town. You should be fairly lucky because up to now there have been only three RAF uniforms seen in town”. We took our leave of Bob Turner and repaired to the Bar to analyse and muse over the morning’s meeting.

To be continued….