Additional Notes on Life at Birmingham University
1940-1943 - The Military part of it.
by W. John Green
I left school - King Edward's at Stourbridge - in September 1940 at the
age of 17 to take a course in the Mining Dept. of Birmingham University. It
had been intended that I should stay at school for yet another year in the
Sixth and aim at a State Scholarship at Cambridge. The coming of the war,
however, changed everyone's life, and with the thought that it was prudent
to 'gather ye rosebuds while ye may', I accepted an Exhibition at Birmingham
which enabled me to live at home - twelve miles away. Accommodation on
campus was, at that time, very limited, comprising only Chancellor's Hall
and University House.
In September of 1940 therefore, I presented myself to the Mining Dept. of
Birmingham University at the beginning of term and to one Dr. Stacey G.
Ward, thus embarking on a course entitled 'Coal Utilisation' which was in
fact Chemical Engineering with special reference to coal, which then had a
potential, not only as an indigenous fuel in itself, but also as a source of
petrochemicals, urgently needed for war purposes. Changing 'Coal to Oil' was
a major research project then in hand in the Department. It is ironical that
much of my later work in industry was concerned with the transition of gas
making plant from coal as a feedstock to oil.
With my arrival at Birmingham it became apparent that the prime object of
my further education, however, would be to train for a military career. If I
happened, incidentally, to pick up an academic degree, then so much the
better. Like most other undergraduates, I immediately enrolled in the Senior
Officers' Training Corps, which then was at battalion strength with officers
and N.C.O. instructors from the Regular Army and specifically designed to
prepare us for Sandhurst or one of its several war-time equivalents.
I had joined the training corps in some defiance of my parents who,
during the 30's had strong pacifist ideas. This was probably due to my
father's experiences as a soldier in France and in Egypt. At the time of my
joining the Training Corps, war had been waging for some twelve months and
there was not much parents could do about it. I rather suspect that they
considered grudgingly that if I had to be killed, I should preferably suffer
that fate as an Officer rather than a conscript. At my interview with the
C.O. I was asked why I had not been in my school cadet corps. I told him of
my parents' pacifism. He asked me why, then, did I wish to ' join up' now.
It was with some glee that I said that my parents' opinions now carried far
less weight than heretofore. I like to think that his face registered:
"Shows initiative!" At least it seemed to please him.
Initially we were equipped with 'First World War' uniforms - cheesecutter
cap, tunics with brass buttons. breeches and puttees, the latter probably
the most uncomfortable of nether garments ever made. We were also issued
with various ammunition pouches, black boots, greatcoats and service
respirators. Like most army equipment, there were two sizes of everything -
too big and too small. Fortunately my greatcoat was a reasonable fit, and we
were allowed when off duty to wear our own brown boots and brown gloves.
These earned us the occasional mistaken salute from regular army personnel.
It was a curious situation. Officially we were 'Officer Cadets', getting
the deference due to potential officers, but receiving the withering scorn
due to cadets.
One of our early P,S.I's. (Permanent Staff Instructors) was a sergeant of
the Coldstream Guards, Once he addressed me with, "Where the ******* hell do
you think you're putting your ****** great feet Mister Green - Sir?" The
"Sir" was heavily loaded, but I'm rather proud of that event.
With patriotic zeal and the threat of pending invasion I 'rose in the
ranks', something to my own surprise. After an early 'stripe', I was allowed
to skip the Corporal rank, became a sergeant in command of a Platoon, and in
1943 became a Cadet Warrant Officer. One of the proudest moments of my life
was when ordered to organise and command the Passing-Out Parade for my year.
Among our 'P.S.I's were Sergeants Alder and MacGonagall. The former
was wont to try and show his affinity with undergraduates by telling rude
stories in the middle of his lectures. As most of us knew stories which were
not only ruder, but more subtle than his, the laughter was more derisory
than genuine. don't think he ever realised this. There was the one about the
monkey sliding down the icicle.......
MacGonagall was a short Irishman who distinguished himself one day on the
field where we were learning 'Judging Distance'. He planted a surveying pole
in the ground, and then sent one of the squad to pace out 120 paces and then
plant another pole. On the return of the pole planter he addressed us: "Now
both of those poles are the same distance apart!"Quite a good example of a
truism and Hibernian logic!
In order that we should be 'on the strength' and thereby qualify for
grants, regular Instructors and rations, the War Office decided that as,
well as being an Officers' Senior Training Battalion, we should also become
the 28th. Bn. Royal Warwickshire Home Guard. This was nothing like Captain
Our old uniforms were then replaced by 'Caps F.S,', serge battledress,
and web gaiters. We operated in two capacities, that of Officer Cadets and
that of Home Guard personnel. This meant changing cap badges from 'O,T,C',
to 'Royal Warwicks' according to which role we were in at any one time.
One of our official, tasks was to "prove" various weapons as they were
introduced. We were among the first to get 'Sten' guns and the P.I.A.T (Projector.Infantry.Anti-Tank).
After about a year we had to give up our beloved S.M.L.E. rifles to try out
an import from America known as the P.30. This used rimless cartridges and
had a circular back-sight. It's barrel stuck out about 6" from the wooden
stock, making it look like the sort of thing the Yankees used to slaughter
the rightful inhabitants of their godforsaken country. It was not popular,
and not all that accurate, With our rifles, we had to change from the long
L-E bayonet to a short spike. We were told that this was because the new
type would kill just as well, but would come out more easily, "giving you
more time for the next one". A happy thought!
We had plenty of practice with the Bren Gun. Teaching recruits 'naming of
parts' of this weapon had an unexpected hazard as someone had, naively or
deliberately, named one important item the 'body locking pin'. Strict
discipline had to be relaxed at this point.
We were also equipped with 2" mortars and "Mills No. 36. HE. Grenades".
At various times I had to lecture on and demonstrate these delights. In view
of my latter career, I find it strange that my first 'public' lectures were
on weapons of destruction. The fact that on targets was often painted a
swastika or a cartoon of A. Hitler relieved any conscience we may have had.
I fully expected to move to further training and be commissioned. Having,
however picked up a degree in Chemical Engineering, the Government aborted
my military career, thinking that I would be better employed producing,
inter-alia, engine fuel, raw-materials for explosives, fertilisers and
There was in this edict both disappointment and relief; disappointment in
that as I had performed rather better in my Army exams than in my academic
work, I was not to be allowed to pursue a career for which I had been
prepared; relief that I was rather less likely to be blown up or shot.
Had I been commissioned in the Army, the timing was such that I would
almost certainly been on the D-Day landings and have been shot. That might
have saved many people a good deal of trouble, but that is another matter!
W.J.G. November 2003
© The Estate of William John Green, 2004