Associations With The Military - And Military Associations (22 March 1974)
During my early years in Bletchley, I met several men whose acquaintance with the town dated from the first world war. They had been sent here for training, had formed romantic attachments with local young ladies and had returned to marry them and settle down as Bletchley people.
For that war, this district produced a large number of volunteers, and would have produced more but for the ban on the enlistment of railway men without the railway management’s permission. Even so, a good many went to France as engine drivers on the support lines to the front.
They then returned to their old jobs at Bletchley and eventually figured in the lists of railmen who received clocks for 40 or 45 years’ service.
Soon after the opening of hostilities, Staple Hall was taken over by the Royal Engineers for training purposes. Men were billeted in schools to start with, then in private houses around the town, the old brewery, the Temperance Hall, and similar odd spots, and also in huts in the grounds of Staple Hall. Even allowing for rationing, the presence of so many troops in the town brought more prosperity than some tradesmen had ever known.
Recently, Mr. Albert Harrington showed me a memento of those days. It was in the form of a postcard. On one side it stated that it had been printed by a Mr. Mack at Hampstead, London. There was also a space to which it stated that a halfpenny stamp should be affixed. On the other side were printed the following verses:
Down in our Staple Hall Camp. (To the tune of (“Back Home in Tennessee”.))
I’m so lonely, oh so lonely, in our blinking camp; I’m like a bloomin’ tramp, not worth a penny stamp; Father, mother, sister, brother, all are waiting me; I’m getting thinner, miss my dinner, and my Sunday’s tea.
Chorus: Down in our muddy camp, we’re always on the ramp, that’s where we cop the cramp, through sleeping in the damp; All we can hear there each day, is “Left, right, march away.”
Sergeants calling, lance-jacks bawling “Get out on parade,” we got to bed at night, it is a glorious sight, the earwigs on the floors, double up and then form fours; then when daylight is dawning, you can hear our sergeant yawning “Show a leg there, show a leg there,” down in our Staple Hall Camp.
So much for the camp – no different from many others either in the first world war or in the second.
The time came when from selected Royal Engineers the Royal Signal Corps – later the Royal Corps of Signals – was formed. Staple Hall became a depot for them. They came from all parts of the Empire and were sent to all parts of the war area.
They engaged the Park Hotel field as their sports ground and played cricket and football.
“I saw some fine cricket and football played there by the RSC,” Mr. Joe Fennell once told me.
“An officer who was a Kent county player made the fastest scoring I have ever seen. I was an umpire at the game. He made 180 runs in an hour and 20 minutes. After his century he hit sixes galore into Bletchley Road (Queensway). We had five balls on the go to save time!
“The RSC also had a good football team. I have known three internationals among them”.
That reminds me of an incident in the last war. You rarely knew who you might be up against in sports meetings with other units. But once, while in the Aldershot area we did know. A sports meeting had been arranged between various units and who should be in the REME unit next door but Sidney Wooderson. He was the fastest miler in the world at that time. I reckon that only the war stopped him from being the first man to do the mile in four minutes. The problem for other units was: who was going to oppose him in the mile race? There was only one taker, and he was in our lot.
His name was Tommy Woodhead, a tubby, rose-cheeked butcher’s boy from Leeds, with a medical category of B7 (feet). “If nobody else will take on Wooderson, I will,” says Tommy. So Wooderson didn’t get a walkover for the REME although he ran away from Tommy in the last lap. But Tommy, if he is still alive, can always claim that he once ran second to the fastest miler in the world!
My own medical category was also B7 (feet) and later on I was astonished to learn it was also that of the reigning heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Joe Louis.
For the second world war Bletchley was given over to the RAF, who had their 90 Group signals in the area from Shenley Road to Rickley Lane. They stayed on for a few years after the war, though in gradually diminishing numbers. While the camp was still very much in being, I visited it twice for courts martial. I also accompanied Mr. Aidan Crawley to the camp while he was Under Secretary at the Air Ministry.
The amount of whitewash laid on was terrific and I rather pitied the lads there because I had seen plenty of it myself.
I remember with joy an occasion when our depot was being visited by a foreign leader and his entourage. The whole place was marked out with new white lines right from the gate to the last shed, both inside and out. I walked into the last shed just ahead of his nibs and party and saw with horror that one packing case was well across the line and two of my lads who had been working there hadn’t been able to move the box and had continued the white line up its side, across the top and down the other side to its correct position again.
I don’t know what happened next. I just fled to the lee of another shed. But then, peeping round the corner, I saw the party emerge. They had grins all over their faces, so the commandant was nullified and we heard no more about it.