THE FORTIES AND AFTER.
I left school - King Edward's at Stourbridge - in September 1940 at the
age of 17 to take a course in Chemical Engineering within 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.
Before starting at University there was an interval of some weeks. In
late July the school had organised a camp near Evesham, the idea being that
we should assist with the plum harvest which was particularly prolific that
year. Plums that year were selling at 2d a pound in Evesham market, and most
of the farms let you pick as many as you could carry for a shilling or so.
We camped on the banks of the Avon near the village of Charlton. This was
not a good idea as even in very hot weather water meadows throw up a damp
mist both morning and evening.
My partner was G.R. (Dicky) Higgins. The farmer fed us at a nominal cost
and allowed us a small amount for each skip that we had picked. Had we
worked assiduously, there should have been a surplus of cash to take home.
As Dickie and I had by then officially left school, we were keen to show our
independence of school discipline, so were inclined to spend the odd
afternoon in or on the river, and some evenings amid the fleshpots, such as
they were, of Evesham. This meant that at the final reckoning, Dickie and I
were the only ones to show a debit balance.
Unfortunately this expedition became one of several events which led to
my resentment of my parents' strict religiosity. Transport to the camp from
the school had been arranged on a Sunday morning. Parents decree was that
'going to Church' took absolute priority. Miraculously I was excused evening
service, so was able to leave by bicycle after Sunday dinner. On the way,
just before the Hoobrook viaduct south of Kidderminster, I failed to mount
the rise between the road and a cycle track and came a cropper, sustaining
some minor injuries. I managed to find a chemist's shop open for 'Sunday
duty' at Droitwich and get patched up.
This delay turned out to be an advantage as both Dickie Higgins and I
then had bikes at the camp and were able to use them to our benefit. The
reason for his having one I cannot remember.
Nevertheless I resented the embarrassment of having to explain my
'non-conformity' - in two senses of the term - to the master organising the
trip. The camp lasted for two weeks, so I was there on the following Sunday
also. Parents would not have known, of course, had I not gone to church, but
I dreaded the question, "Where did you go on Sunday?" and being unable to
lie sufficiently well to get away with it. I therefore cycled to Worcester
and back on that Sunday morning- no small distance - to attend Angel Street
Congregational Church - for that reason alone.
Immediately following the plum-picking camp, the family had arranged a
short holiday at Broadway, not far from Evesham. The war had made the usual
sea-side holiday impossible. Mr. & Mrs. Freeman, who held some office at
Broadway Congregational Church, and owned a bungalow on the south side, of
the Evesham Road, had invited them to stay, and had arranged for Paul and I
to 'put up' with a Mrs Pope who lived in a detached house opposite. We
'broke camp' fairly early on the Saturday morning, and the family were not
expected to arrive at Broadway station until late afternoon.
I therefore had the whole day before me. I remember dozing off on
Broadway village green, and then deciding to cycle to Cheltenham and back
via Winchcombe and Cleeve Hill. I later met the family off the train, when
we embarked on a week's holiday which mostly consisted of tramping round the
district. I am afraid that this was one of the holidays which demonstrated
that when you are seventeen years of age, a 'holiday' in the country with
parents and a twelve-year-old brother is something of a penance rather than
Memories of that week include acquaintance with Morris's grocery store at
Broadway Cross. The main window display was a faded cardboard advertisement
for 'Pearce-Duff's Creamy Custard', the window floor being suitably
decorated with an assortment of dead blue-bottles. As Mr. Morris was a
pillar of the Congregational Church this seemed to be acceptable. At some
other time, we acquired a kitten from the Morris's, which Mother
unimaginatively christened 'Morris Broadway'. Neither the name nor the
kitten seemed to last very long. Father had an aversion to animals.
One day Mrs. Freeman, a well-burnished, 'Joan Hunter-Dunn' type,
organised a 'hike' to Snowshill. Rucksacks were organised, thermos's were
filled, sticks brought out of the broom cupboard and boots dubbined. We were
rather puzzled by all this as we were quite used to walking twice the
planned distance with just a sandwich in our pockets, twopence for a bottle
of Tizer, and our every-day clothes supplemented only by a 'mac'.
In later years, of course, the apparent need for the 'right gear' in
which to do almost anything became paramount.
On my return home, Ian Hope and I decided to get a job during the rest of
the vacation. The Labour Exchange sent us to the R.A.F. Maintenance Unit at
Hartlebury and we were appointed 'T.C.C's' - Temporary Civilian Clerks. I
never had such a soul-killing job. From Hartlebury there went out to
operational bases everything from lavatory brushes to spares for Lancaster
bombers. An invoice for each transaction was made out in triplicate. The top
sheet, printed in red and the second, in blue, went out with the order. We
retained the third, printed in black. The latter were filed in numerical
On receipt of the goods, they were signed-for and the blue sheet sent
back to us. A whole pile of these was placed on my desk at frequent
intervals. My contribution to the war effort was to take each returned
'blue', match it with its corresponding 'black', pin them together and put
them in a tray marked 'Out'. Yes, that's all - from 8.a.m. to 6.p.m. with
half an hour for lunch ! Periodically someone would take them out of this
tray, but where they went to we neither knew nor cared.
The 'Office Manager' was a character named 'Tassell' who chain-smoked
with a fag perpetually between his nicotine-stained lips, and who seemed to
do little else. Some time during the day we would have a visit from the
Squadron-Leader, the main purpose of which seemed to be to have an
altercation with Tassell about the supply of some things called 'Beaverettes'.
I never did find out what they were.
One way of snatching a brief respite from the boredom of this work was to
choose a slack period when Tassell was out of the office, pick up a sheaf of
papers and go for a brisk walk round the site. The brisk pace, the sheaf of
papers and a military bearing gave one the freedom of the M.U. I was never
It was with a certain relief that after a couple of weeks at this I was
forced to give up through illness. It was diagnosed as 'pylitis', brought on
by camping in a damp water-meadow. I was ordered to stay in bed and drink
gallons of barley water. Frankly I have reason to doubt the veracity of this
diagnosis, and it caused difficulty on several occasions for years
thereafter as Insurance Companies do not like a history of kidney
complaints. Anyway, the recommended treatment was less boring than had been
the R.A.F. One could at least do some reading and absorb a little T.L.C.
I recovered in time to present 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. '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 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
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. He had been saved
from the humiliation then accorded to the conscientious objector by his
joining the R.A.M.C. in which he later became a sergeant. Pacifism in
principle, and on the global scale did not, however, outlaw physical
punishment for the family. My early years were accompanied by fear of my
father's hands which became associated with pain.
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 - cheese
cutter 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. 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 (Permanent Staff Instructors) 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. I 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
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
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 god-forsaken 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, naÔvely 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. H.E. 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.
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WITH CONTINUOUS TRAINING CAMPS.]
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, (How we managed to do both, I cannot now imagine!) 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!
[INSERT DETAILS OF ACADEMIC SIDE OF UNIVERSITY.] - see FILE:
© The Estate of William John Green, 2004