©2000, 2008 Yvonne Ellacott Knapp
This is the story of my life as a member of the British armed forces during the years of World War II. It seems like many people are interested in that period. I first wrote this story over 50 years ago, when it was still fresh in my mind.
I was just 18 when I enlisted in the distaff side of the Army. We were given the cumbersome name of Auxiliary Territorial Service. The name Territorial was taken from the peacetime army, which is similar to the National Guard.
Just two days after my birthday I reported to the Drill Hall of the Wessex Divisional Signals, the Territorial Unit in the city of Exeter, where I lived. This was a large hall, with bare, knotted floors, worn smooth by generations of drilling men. These men were not quite sure how to deal with an invasion of females.
We underwent preliminary training with a carefully patient sergeant of artillery. We were instructed in the basic drills, cleaning and care of equipment, anti-gas procedures, etc. Everyone was issued a gas mask, anti-gas ointment, and a steel helmet. We had courses in first aid, Army regulations and rank identification.
After these practice sessions, every week for several months, we were considered ready to go to camp. It was the autumn of 1939, and war clouds were once again gathering over Europe. Everywhere were seen Government leaflets, and instructions on blackout procedures; the people were all issued gas masks, and taught their use. The young men were being called up, the population was taking part in practice alerts, in blackout procedure, and newly trained wardens appeared in helmets and arm bands.
The camp selected for our future training area was Tidworth Pennings on Salisbury Plain, the training ground of the Army for centuries. This area is a vast network of camps, all engaged in training for different aspects of warfare. It was July 15, 1939. This day I shall always remember. We left our Drill Hall and marched to Exeter Central Station, where we boarded a special train, already occupied by other companies. After the long journey across the country, the train was met by the band of the Lincolnshire Regiment, smartly attired in their dress blues. This vast plain, with stands of trees in strategic places, has been the training ground for infantry, cavalry, armour, and even the famous Archers of Agincourt, who defeated the enemy centuries ago. Not far away were the Druid Stones, known now as Stonehenge.
The camp at Pennings contained units and contingents who had traveled from every area in the Southern Command, each unit administered by its own officers who, in turn, had taken their training at the Officers School at Camberly in Kent. The holding battalion was of the Lincolns. Also stationed at the camp were the 9th Lancers and the 10th Hussars, both armored regiments. At this camp we received intensive training in the four categories at that time available to women: cook, clerk, driver, and orderly. Having had no training of any kind, I chose to be trained as a cook; it was the highest pay. We learned later that H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth had enlisted as a driver. I had reason to regret my choice later, when the more glamorous categories such as radio operator, radar, kinetheodolite and search light openings came along. No one would release a 1st Class cook, but rather they trained recruits for the job.
It was during this period at Tidworth that the Army issued us with complete uniforms. We had only been issued work clothes and all sizes had not been available in dress. The worst articles were the stockings. When washed, they faded to a colour very much like the excretions of geese! These cotton monstrosities were doomed to turn a vivid yellow after several washings! The tunic and skirt were of khaki serge, the greatcoat exactly like the mens. We wore tan "fatigue" dresses of cotton for ordinary duties. All these items had a wealth of brass buttons, which had to be cleaned daily. The shoes were brown leather walking shoes. We received a dark khaki raincoat with a fleece liner, and a groundsheet of heavy waterproof material, three pairs of khaki rayon knickers (promptly nicknamed "wristcutters"), and a large kit bag completed our issue.
The period at this camp was our first experience as part of the Army. We were treated the same as a soldier, combat training and rifle drill. I even fired a machine gun, which shook not only my hands holding the gun, but my own body! This was the Bren gun, one English contribution to the war effort. I was part of the Emergency Cooks Training Corps, the ECTC. This group provided the food for all the women in the camp, under the Army professionals. The trainees took turns working in the three different messes, the O.R., or Other Ranks, the Sergeants and the Officers; the officers was the most popular, of course; the menu was more fancy, and the utensils were not so heavy. We were only at the camp for two weeks, but the lessons I learned there were never forgotten.
Through the seven years I was in the Army, I took many courses in the Catering Corps, but the fundamentals for cooking for unlimited numbers were learned at the lean-to cookhouses and tents of the Tidworth camp.
Because of Chamberlains "Peace in Our Time" idiocy at Munich, many of the civilian population were lulled into an uneasy quiet. However, the Army was speeding up our training, and every two weeks another complement moved into Pennings, 1,500 at a time. Our first parade with a band was quite impressive. We were now also taking part in the precision drills with men. The Army at that time had not developed the column of threes; the old complicated column of four was still in use, relic of the old battle squares, when the maneuvering of a large group was very tricky. The drills had to be mastered so that we could hold our own in the church parades and route marches. The parades were also morale boosters; the units looked very smart in review.
The two church parades we took part in were led by the Lincolns in their dress blues, with brass shining, and white trappings, led by the Regimental colours. While we were their partners, we took part in our first Retreat, a solemn ceremony put on at the death of an officer. The blues were then worn with red tunics and gold epaulets. The whole parade marched in very slow time, which was very difficult, with black draped drums the only sound; even the hoofs of the horses are muffled. Suddenly the bugle rings out, shattering the silence with the Last Post, normally the last call of the day.
Before we left Tidworth we were honored by a visit by Her Majesty the Queen (now the Queen Mother). We had to stand at attention for a very long time, due to the size of the parade, while she inspected the lines and spoke to a few of us. During this long wait, one of the young drummer boys fainted, and was carefully hidden by his comrades. These boys are quite young the even get a milk ration entering the Army at 14, making their careers as bandsmen.
The other camps of the Plain were all full; the country was speeding up recruiting, as the situation became extremely worse in Europe. The Channel seemed to have shrunk to much less than 25 miles. We were taken to visit these other camps; social events were shared. Though we were closely restricted, we did make friends among members of other units. It soon became a hobby to collect the cap badges of the various other regiments. These badges were very ornate, some bearing the crest of the counties from which they came, or symbols of battles won throughout the Empire.
The weather through the whole period was bad. The day that we arrived was wet and the Tidworth Station was dripping and dismal. We marched behind the band in the pouring rain. Many of the villagers gathered to watch us arrive and march away. We were greeted on our arrival at the camp by a sea of white canvas tents, which were to be referred to as "lines."
Each company was allotted its own "lines," and was expected to organize them and keep them clean. Our first detail was to draw two sacks from the quartermasters tent. The larger of these was about six feet long. They were to be filled with straw, for our mattress. The other, smaller one, was to be our pillow.
We were then issued two coarse white sheets, a pillowcase, and a thick blanket. These, with the addition of a waterproof groundsheet, were our beds. When we were assigned our tents, we were to place these "beds" on the "duckboards" that made up the floor, feet towards the tent pole. Because of the pouring rain, the movements of the occupants were very restricted. The slightest contact with the taut canvas would cause a leak. The tiny space was scarcely large enough for four women and their kit, steel helmets, gas masks, etc. The whole camp seemed to be a continuation of duckboards. To get to the mess tent, cookhouse, and ablutions, which were a considerable distance apart, we had to negotiate them very carefully. One slip meant a bath in the clay mud. One luckless corporal slipped and broke her arm, our first casualty!
We had to each take turns on patrol and fire duty.
There were a few days when the torrential rain stopped, and the sun came out. We took advantage of this to go to demonstrations of the Armys machinery and weapons. The most interesting of these was a ride in a tank. There was some difficulty getting into the hatch at the top, and once inside, the space was so confined that there was only room for two. The tanks did not have a steering wheel, but a right and left hand lever to steer them. To add to the excitement, the tank I was riding in got stuck in the white clay mud. We were stuck in a tilted position until a vehicle called a "retriever" came to pull us out.
We were conducted on a tour of the Military Hospital, a large brick building with spotless wards and gleaming floors, lit by long windows. The kitchens were of white tile, filled with long counters of stainless steel and shining equipment. On the wards we talked to the starched and efficient Army sisters, in their red and white uniforms and gold badges. I had occasion later to remember those peaceful wards; there came a time, much later, when they were filled with victims of the "Peace in Our Time" blunder.
Our company was taken by truck to an ordnance factory, now running night and day. We saw the new "I" tank demonstrated, a machine which was used with great success in Africa. These two weeks were filled with far more interesting events than later trainees ever had.
As the service grew larger, training centres were set up all over the country. At this time there were only 5,000 volunteers. My number was 5151. When Poland was invaded, Chamberlain hesitated still, but our country had given its word, we could not be dishonoured by such a man. He was forced to resign. Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. Immediately, every war regulation showed its teeth. More men poured into the training camps; all the ships were called home by the Royal Navy, which my sister had joined. My two brothers took their places: one in the Royal Artillery, the other a teacher training Home Guard recruits.