Preparing for war: Memories of GF Canning (1918-2012)

In the army
In the army

My father was always trying to persuade his own father to write his memoirs. My grandfather wasn't one for writing, but he did get some of his memories into writing. As it is Remembrance Sunday today I thought I would share his early experience of life in the Army in the Second World War. It is a humbling experience to remember that the people who fought this war were not professionals, but ordinary men and women. Although he spent most of the war in North Africa and Italy his first brush with death was in the Cornish town of Falmouth. Everything that follows is his own words.

 

 

In 1939 preparations were being made for war – conscription was being introduced for twenty year olds and then twenty-one year olds had to register for national service followed by older men up to the age of forty in stages.

War broke out in September 1939 and everything changed. The blackout and rationing were introduced and shops had to close early at about 5pm.

I registered for service in October 1939. In November I had to go to Worcester for a medical examination.

On Thursday 15th February 1940 I had to report for military service at the barracks of the Worcestershire Regiment at Norton, near Worcester. We all thought the war would be short and were looking forward for the holiday with pay! As things turned out this was far from what was going to happen.

On the morning of the 15th I left home and made my way to Evesham railway station where I met a chap named Arthur Locke who was also going to Norton Barracks. However we decided we would have a drink in Worcester before going on to Norton but the army had other plans. As we got off the train at Shrub Hill a big burly seargent wearing a red sash came up to us and said “Are you for Norton Barracks?”. When we said we were he directed us to a waiting bus. We got on the bus for our “holiday” and never had freedom from that point for six long years.

I did my initial training of four months learning how to kill 1914-1918 style and I did a further two months barrack guards at depot HQ. During my time at Norton the evacuation of Dunkirk took place and we were moved out into billets to make way for the survivors who had to be re-kitted and re-posted to their appropriate units. I stayed in a garage at Norton Vicarage for this period. What a sight these chaps were unwashed unshaven some in civilian kit, navy uniforms, French uniforms all sorts of attire completely demoralised and not a pretty sight. From that point it was obvious the war was going to last a lot longer than we at first realised.

After the six months at Norton we were posted to the eighth battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment who were in camp at Kington in Herefordshire. There we joined what was left of the original battalion 100 men out of the original strength of 1000 men. All the rest were either killed, drowned or taken prisoner in France. The reinforcement consisted of 500 from Norton Barracks and 350 from the Welsh Fusiliers from Wrexham Barracks which more or less brought the battalion up to full strength.

Incidentally I was posted to B Company which was formerly the Territorial Company for Evesham and Pershore so a lot of the survivors were chaps that I knew.

We were under canvas at Kington it being summertime.

It wasn’t long before we moved to another location one of many which was subsequently made. However this last move was to Castle Cary in Somerset where we were housed in the former Territorial Drill Hall. After about three weeks were on the move again this time to Lanhydrock in Cornwall. We were under canvas in the woods which gave us good cover as a German invasion was expected at any moment. We had a fleet of Western National busses standing by to get us to any given area quickly. We were standing to every morning at dawn and at sundown which were the times that the expected invasion would be attempted.

However thanks to the RAF and the Royal Navy he never made it although he did make attempted large scale raids as it was reported that a large number of German soldiers bodies were washed up along the Cornish coast.

We moved from this God-forsaken area to Budock just outside Falmouth in fields under canvas again, but still doing the standing to routine as the expected invasion was still a possibility.

However as Autumn approached the powers that be decided to move us into Falmouth into commandeered houses by the football field.

I had my first brush with death while in Falmouth.

The Methodist Hall was turned into a canteen and games complex for servicemen and it was run by the WVS. We could get a cup of tea and a cake very cheaply and have a game of table tennis or darts and it was run by lovely Christian people. When I went into Falmouth I made it my first port of call.

One evening I made my usual visit and had my usual tea and homemade cakes and after I had a game of table tennis with one of my mates from the same room I was billeted in by the Wylde – a young lad from the Black Country. However after we finished the game he asked if I wanted another game. I said I wanted to go to the cinema, the Odeon, which was just across the road. So I said cheerio and I’d see him back at the billets and made my way into the cinema. However after I’d been in there for about a quarter of an hour there was a terrific explosion. It was thought at first that a bomb had hit the cinema and panic broke out temporarily, but the audience soon calmed down and continued to enjoy the picture. After the show we went outside into the street and had a shock. They had the Methodist Hall cordoned off. A bomb had drifted into the hall completely demolishing the ground floor and killing everybody in there including young Wylde, my mate. For the next few weeks we were getting nightly bombings of Falmouth. The target was the docks.

However Autumn was approaching and we were preparing for our next move which was Truro, twelve miles away where we marched to with full pack. We arrived at our new billets which was the school on Fairmantle Street right in the centre of the city. Our dining hall was the Regent Annexe a hall at the back of the Regent cinema on Lemon Quay. During our long stay in Truro (9 months) we attended St George’s Church every Sunday for church parade; fired our rifles on Idless Ranges, foot and arms drill on Lemon Quay and night exercises. At that time I didn’t think that Truro would play such a huge part in my future. It probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t met a certain young lady by the name of Doris Gallie whom I happened to bump into in the Blackout who would bring Cornish pasties around to Farmantle Street to keep me sweet. One of the duties while in Truro was guard duty at Truro martialling yard (railway).

During this time Plymouth was being bombed nightly with huge casualties. We used to use a railway coach as a guard room and one night I remember they shunted a passenger luggage coach into a siding near us and when they opened the doors it was full of coffins which were the dead from the previous night’s bombing in Plymouth. Just after a fleet of hearses drove up and carried them off.

We spent Christmas 1940 in Truro where I visited and was introduced to Doris’s family. Truro was to become a second home to the 8th Worcesters as quite a number of chaps married Truro girls.

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1 thought on “Preparing for war: Memories of GF Canning (1918-2012)

  1. I'm glad your grandfather took the time to write his memories. Thank you for sharing. It is important to important to remember what others so selflessly did.

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