10 - Military Aspects
 
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Chapter 10
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 Mainwaring's mob.

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 aspirin tablets.

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