A Very Ordinary Story Chapter 7.

A Very Ordinary Story


World War II 1940-1943

At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 I was 22 years of age and was still working as a clerk at St Monans station. Because of my age I missed the first conscription call up to the services, but knew that I would be eligible for the next call up, so I volunteered for service in the Railway Section of the Royal Arrmy Service Corps (RASC), thinking that my considerable experience in railway work, would make me a suitable applicant and that such a job in the Army would keep me out of the firing line. Fortunately, or unfortunately for me, my application wasn't accepted and in January 1940 I received my call up papers. I was instructed to report to the Black Watch Depot in Perth. After being kitted out, medically examined and fed, we were sent, by train to Callander to join the 7th. Battalion The Black Watch (RHR) who were billeted in the Atholl Arms hotel, approximately a mile from the town.

It was a traumatic experience for me, coming from the comforts and freedom of civilian life to the spartan and disciplined life of the army. We weren't measured for the uniform with which we were issued. The soldier issuing the kit just eyed us up and decided on the size of uniform, which fitted where it touched and was made of very rough material. The Army boots were made of hard, unyielding leather - I had never worn boots in my life before, apart from rugby boots! The food was terrible, we thought, mass cooked, and served on tin plates and a tin mug for the tea; a lot was left on the plate at that first army lunch in Perth. We were issued with a knife, fork and spoon as part of our kit and it had to be taken with us to every meal. After some basic training in the art of being an infantryman and some quite strenuous P.T. every morning before breakfast, the food began to taste like manna. (Hunger is the best sauce!). Of course we all became very fit and, in a way, began to enjoy the life.

We spent several weeks marching, countermarching, sloping arms, presenting arms and all the other things foot soldiers are trained in. The theory is that drill teaches one to obey orders immediately, without question. Looking back, it seems that the armed services were not quite ready to go to war, as it was some time before we were issued with rifles and at first, they were not the standard British Army type, but, I think, an American style having a .300 bore. Eventually we were issued with real British rifles (.303 bore)Lee Enfield, complete with bayonet). The only time we were issued with ammunition was when we went to the range for target practice, and I became quite a good marksman. The bayonet was worn, attached to the belt, in a sheath. There was a standard drill procedure (as there was for just about everything we did) for fixing and unfixing bayonets. The training in the use of bayonets was a bit gruesome. We ran towards our target (a straw filled bag to represent a body) with bayonets at the 'ready'. When we reached the target the training sergeant would shout 'In'! The'In'! bayonet was plunged into the straw filled bag and on the command 'Out', the bayonet was withdrawn with a twisting motion. The 'On Guard' position was then adopted i. e. the rifle was brought up in front of the body and we ran on, presumably to our next target. I am happy to say that I was never required to do this in action. We did a lot of tactical training as well, until we became the complete infantry soldiers. We worked in a group called a Section, composed of seven men with a Lance Corporal, or Corporal, in charge. Four sections comprised a Platoon with an Officer (a Second Lieutenant or Lieutenant along with a Platoon Sergeant) in charge. Four Platoons made up an Infantry Company, with its Company Commander and CompanySergeant Major.

In the Atholl Palace Hotel, we slept on the floor of one of the rooms, firstly with a groundsheet and a couple of blankets and eventually were given two small trestles and three planks of wood to form a sort of bed along with a paliasse filled with straw as a mattress, at least it kept us off the floor. We were awakened every morning to the skirl of the pipes. A piper playing 'Hey, Johnny Cope are ye wauken yet', walked the corridors of the erstwhile hotel. The 7th. Battalion was a Fife Territorial battalion and all the officers and NCOs were really only pre-war part time soldiers, and we, the conscripts were sent to bring them up to strength. Soon, friends were made and things began to get a bit easier. The crowd in my room, eight of us, were a good bunch and we all got on well. I remember one of them clearly, J.D. Smith who had been studying law before his call up. After the war he eventually became Town Clerk at Greenock. When off duty we would go out together, and especially on a Sunday afternoon went to a little cafe in a village called Kilmahog where we were served with the most delicious afternoon teas with home baking and fresh cream. I don't know how it was done, but it was still early days, during the 'phoney war'. We made solemn promises with each other that, after the war was over we would reunite, book that room and all sleep on the floor. Needless to say that never came off, although I did meet up with J.D. Smith, long after the war had finished, but lost touch with all the others as we went our various ways during the course of the war.

Elspeth was still working in Dunfermline, which is not too far from Callander. We arranged that she would come through one Sunday so that we could spend some time together. Unfortunately just at that time the Germans had bypassed the Maginot line and France fell into their hands and on that Sunday we were all confined to barracks, spending the time filling sandbags so that gun emplacements could be made to mount our Bren guns for anti-aircraft duty!! Elspeth duly arrived in Callander and, as I had no means of communication I couldn't warn her of the circumstances, so, after waiting for some time at our appointed rendezvous, she walked up to the hotel gates and told the sentry on duty there of the situation. He must have been a good lad for he passed the message on and I was duly advised, (we were having lunch at the time). I had a quick wash and change and did a bunk. Elspeth and I were able to spend a few hours together despite the world crashing about our ears. I must have had loyal friends in camp, as my absence was never reported.

Passing Out

This photograph of our passing out was taken after we had completed our basic infantry training at Callander. I cannot recollect the name of the inspecting officer but my Company Commander Captain Mickey Stevens, from Cupar, Fife, is second from the left and I am in the front row of soldiers, fifth from the right, the soldier immediately before me is Fred Macintosh, from Broughty Ferry who was our Company Clerk, and before him is J.D. Smith, whom I mentioned earlier. The battalion had been under strength before we arrived and at the end of our basic training, apparently more NCOs were required and I was 'promoted' to the rank of an Acting Unpaid Lance Corporal (the lowest of the low). The battalion then moved to the Shetland Isles to defend that part of Britain against any German invasion. We built the Robertson line right across the part where it was thought any assault would come (our CO was called Lt. Col. Robertson). It consisted of barbed wire and foxholes! We were billeted in Lerwick, in the huts that had been used to accommodate the influx of fish workers when the herring-fishing season was at its height. It was in Shetland that I lost my taste for rum and, to this day cannot abide it. I was listed as guard commander one day, and, as it was a bitterly cold night and our post was a bell tent, the orderly officer, along with the duty sergeant visited us to give us a tot of rum. The rum was contained in a large galvanised tea pail and was dished out into our drinking mugs, I think the officer and sergeant had a nip at every post they visited as they didn't notice the off duty members of the guard fill their water bottles from the rum pail. There wasn't much guarding done that night, but at least we were warm and I haven't been able to look rum in the face since then. My memories of the Shetlands and Lerwick, its capital, are a bit vague. The countryside, I thought, was a bit austere very few trees, if any at all, but the locals were very friendly and we all got on well together.

A pretty rough and uncomfortable time was spent in Shetland. Although I was beginning to get used to army life, I thought that, rightly or wrongly, to have a reasonably comfortable time in the army the only way was to get promotion, so I stuck in and tried to do all the right things, and eventually was made up to a Corporal, a fully paid one this time. Apart from getting a bit more money I had greater clout, but didn't lose any friends in the process. Eventually our Company Commander, Captain Micky Stevens from Cupar, recommended me and two or three others for a commission. I think we were all like-minded and jumped at the chance. I was sent to an OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit)in at Pwllheli in North Wales in January 1941 and spent a gruelling three months learning to be an Officer and Gentleman. It was a comparatively short course to change a young inexperienced soldier who really was a civilian at heart to such a high estate, but the Army must have been desperate for officers at that time. The work was extremely intensive, we were taught leadership, man management, how to ride a motor bike, put through extensive drills, map reading, and loads of TEWTs (Tactical Exercises Without Troops!), and many other things besides. Some time before the great day of passing out we were asked to list our choice of three Regiments in order of preference if we passed muster.

I was lucky enough to be given my first choice – The Black Watch (R.H.R). - and at that time representatives of tailors from Saville Row appeared, looking for the business of supplying our dress uniform, as, being officers now we had to buy our own dress uniform! A khaki tunic with brass buttons, tartan trews, brogues a glengarry, a balmoral with the famous red hackle and a kilt. A Sam Browne belt was also a must . I purchased mine from a firm of tailors called Hawkes of Saville Row!!! I was given a short leave before being posted to the Regimental Depot at Perth, there were a few more of us (rookie Officers) from different OCTUs and we were billeted at Kinfauns Castle because of shortage of accommodation at the Depot. Fortunately I didn't spend very long there. I say fortunately because most of our time was spent doing square bashing under the beady eyes of the depot RSM - he was a terror - but no matter how awkward we were he always made sure he addressed us collectively as 'gentlemen' or individually as 'Sir'. For all that he could put the fear of death in us. I recollect one rather timid officer who was doing his stint at giving us drill under the watchful eye of the RSM, getting himself tied in knots, called us all to a halt, marched up to the RSM and saluted him before asking him what to do next. -- No, it wasn't me. That was about all we did there as well as taking our turn at doing Duty Officer. It was all a rather terrifying experience, as we were rookies and the permanent staff at the depot were mostly old sweats. However it didn't last long and I was soon sent on embarkation leave before being posted to the 4th. Battalion, who were stationed at Gibraltar.

Three other newly commissioned officers and myself were instructed to embark on the cruiser HMS London which was going to join the naval Force H, based at Gibraltar. We enjoyed the hospitality of the Royal Navy for a few weeks. The journey took longer than expected as we gave chase to one of the German pocket battleships on our way, but nothing came of it and eventually we disembarked at Gibraltar.

I get a mention in the book; HMS London by Iain Ballantyne, publisher Leo Cooper :-

"On 12 May, at a UK port, London embarked soldiers who were being taken south to Gibraltar. The generous internal "proportions of the County Class cruisers made them ideal troop carriers and one of the young Army officers aboard "was John Cunningham:


I had just been commissioned into the Black Watch and was posted to join the 4th Battalion in Gibraltar. While aboard London we slept in the officers' quarters and, as far as I can recollect, our food was good and compared well with our Officer's Mess fare. We didn't have a lot to do, as it was a fairly idle time. We played cards a lot, mostly Brag. Apart from the tug-o-war and deck quoits I seem to remember doing quite a bit of jogging round the deck. I didn't find life at sea too bad because l am a reasonably good sailor, so I wasn't seasick. Some gun practice, with the 8-inch weapons, took place on one occasion and we were issued with cotton wool to protect our ears. After some time in Gib I suffered severe earache and it was discovered that a piece of cotton wool had impacted against my eardrum.

To occupy themselves during the voyage south to Gibraltar the young soldiers of the Black Watch challenged London's officers to a tug of war contest. John Cunningham is one of those pulling (second from the front).

The 4th. Battalion (a Dundee Territorial battalion) had been fighting in France. They managed to escape, not at Dunkirk, but a bit further along the coast. They were somewhat depleted and battle scarred and must have been sent to Gibraltar to regroup and recover from their harrowing experiences in France. We were well received by our fellow officers, considering that we were the first intake of 'emergency commissioned officers'. I was allocated my own platoon in B Company, which was under the command of Major Thomas Fotheringham (a rather 'By Jove' sort of chap), and I soon fell into the routine of being a platoon commander

B Company was stationed at Catalan Bay on the Mediterranean side of the Rock, right underneath the water catchments. There were several lovely little sandy bays there, and my platoon had the privilege of defending one such bay. It was idyllic. Living conditions were good indeed, no rationing at all, the drink and cigarettes were cheap. Food was good, plentiful and varied, the shops were all well stocked and I was able to send Elspeth silk stockings and cosmetics, which were unobtainable at home.

As well as defending our little bay, we had to provide work parties to assist the Royal Engineers who were engaged in blasting out more tunnels to make living accommodation in the heart of the Rock in case of siege. We, the infantrymen, did the navvying, shovelling the rock into trucks, which ran on rails, and were tipped outside. This rock was then taken to extend the airfield runway at North Front, quite near to the border with Spain.

North Front Gib

A colleague (Lieut MacFarlane) and I being challenged before entering the underground Wireless Station at the North Front of 'The Rock'. The sentries had to wear greatcoats as the Guard Post was inside the tunnel and it was very cold in there despite the warm climate of Gibraltar.

We were watched, I'm sure, by the enemy just across the border, and of course we had observation posts watching them watching us. Spain was neutral, and droves of Spaniards came across the border every day from the town of La Linea to work in Gibraltar. They worked in the shops, in the hotels and in the dockyard. All in all Gibraltar was a very good part of the world to be in at that time. We were very friendly with the Navy and mutual visits for meals or sherry parties were made. We played against them at various sports, football , (we had the best team) , boxing, water polo, athletics etc. I had been appointed Sports Officer for the Battalion so was given a quite a bit of freedom to enable me to organise the various events. I even fought in a boxing match in an attempt to show an example and encourage others. I was drawn against a big sergeant - it was my first and last fight!

We couldn't do any proper military training because of the limitations of space on the Rock, and although life was quite pleasant it became a bit monotonous. We had sporadic air raids, but they weren't very intensive. We were allowed a day pass to visit La Linea, or a weekend pass to visit Tangier across in North Africa, I suppose to help boost our morale and overcome the monotony.

During our stay in Gibraltar we saw part of the build up for the attack on Rommel at El Alamain. Spitfires were brought to Gibraltar by cargo ship, in huge crates, and were assembled ready to take off for the forthcoming battle. We had just managed to get the runway extension finished in time for those and other bigger aircraft to land and take off. The bay just off the dockyard filled up with all sorts of vessels, containing articles of war to back up the campaign. Of course we did not know this at the time. Part of our duty then was to man a small boat, armed with a Bren Gun and an Aldis Lamp to look for and deter midget submarines. The Italians used these to try and penetrate the defences and stick limpet mines on the hull of the shipping anchored in the bay.

After Montgomery successfully cleared North Africa, our CO managed to get a Battle School organised at a place near Oran and various contingents of the troops on Gibraltar. were sent over to get a taste of what real infantry training was. -- It nearly killed us -- after the soft life we had been living. However the battalion was sent home in early 1943, and joy of joys we were stationed at St Andrews. Only half an hour from my home town, St Monans. In preparation for this return home I had made an unromantic proposal of marriage, by letter, t0 Elspeth. I enclosed a cheque for her to buy the ring, which, I'm glad to say she did. We were married at the first available opportunity, on my first leave. My uncle Willie was Session Clerk at the local Church and he speeded up the banns. Unfortunately there was a vacancy for a minister at our Church but we were married by the interim moderator the Rev. J Paterson in Lyndean at Anstruther on 17th. May 1943. Being an officer had its perks - we were able to travel First Class on the railway for free, because of my civilian occupation and army status. For our honeymoon we travelled to Edinburgh first of all, falling foul of the General Assembly of The Church of Scotland, our hotel was full of ministers! The following day we travelled to Ballater, where we spent a few days with our heads in the clouds and extremely self-conscious of being newly weds!

Too soon the honeymoon was over and we went our separate ways once more. I, back to my unit in St Andrews and Elspeth to the GPO in Dunfermline, reduced in status because she had got married was no longer 'established' and was only considered to be working on a temporary basis, because of this she lost her dowry, as it was quaintly called. The reason being that she did not have enough 'established' service. It did not, however, reduce the quality or quantity of work she had to do. Those were hard days indeed.

From West to East 1943-1946

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