I went into the Army on what was known as a University Short Course. That is, a six-month course of mixed training, half academic, half military, before going into the ranks. Boys from public schools were interviewed, and if considered "officer material", were accepted. My interview was before a daunting line of very senior officers, some of whom asked searching questions, and some just growled. Anyway, I was accepted, for Edinburgh University.

By a strange coincidence, Duncan Christie, an old friend, was accepted ( from Stowe ) for exactly the same course. Duncan and I had known each other since we were four; our parents were great friends, and there had been over the years a lot of parties, dinners, and picnics on Crantock beach. So Duncan and I grew up together, and in our teens fancied the same girls, and danced a pretty skillful ballroom dance with them. The only reason that he wasn't a regular part of my other group of friends was that he lived in Crantock, six miles away by road, or three if you walked across the Gannel.

So, in early March, 1942, Duncan and I took the train to London, and then the night-train to Glasgow, where we had to go first to be kitted out. We found ourselves in a squad of sixty public-school boys, varying from keen to languid, bright to dim, and pleasant to unpleasant; but all of us shared a sense of superiority. This was soon knocked out of us by a corporal of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, a little man, straight as a ramrod, dressed in Glengarry bonnet and trews, brass and boots shining brightly. He marched us up and down the parade-ground, shouting his orders in a broad Scots accent, and just when we thought we'd got it right, he'd halt us and tell us we were a bunch of incompetent idiots -- very hurtful, but probably very good for us. We only stayed in that barracks for a week, being kitted out with battle-dress, webbing equipment and steel helmets. We lined up for typhoid, tetanus and cholera injections, the lot; and to cap it all, we were taken through gas-chambers of various noxious gases, to get us used to gas-mask drill.

After that first week we moved to a more civilized life in Edinburgh. Duncan and I were in lodgings near the Meadows, with four others, David and Dick from Eton, Michael from Shrewsbury, and Richard from Downside. We all got on well together, and we were looked after by two dear old sisters who fed us on potato soup nearly every day. The idea of these University Short Courses was that there should be a mixture of military training, and academic teaching; in our case, training for the artillery, a thorough revision of trigonometry would have been enough. But the old pre-war dons insisted on trying to teach us abstruse mathematics and differential calculus ,which was not only far beyond our powers, but also completely irrelevant, and very conducive to sleep. However, the military part of the programme was much more relevant, with gun-drill, parade-ground drill, PE, battle-school, and runs to the top of Arthur's Seat, that imposing hill that overlooks Edinburgh and Holyrood Palace. All this made us extremely fit, and able to enjoy life; and there was much to enjoy. Edinburgh before the Festival and theme-park influence was a busy and bustling city, very self-contained, even a bit stuffy and strict. But we had free use of the Students' Union, and we got to know the girls at the College of Domestic Science, and we soon learned all the Scottish dances, the Eightsome Reel , as well as the Dashing White Sergeant, and Stripping the Willow.

It was in Edinburgh that we first met our first Americans, in the shape of the US Navy. The city suddenly became crowded with US sailor boys, gazing about with wonder at so much antiquity. On the whole they were a fairly small-town lot, pleasant but naive; in those days, many of them were still first-generation Americans, and it was noticeable .Saturday nights became complete bedlam, in pubs all up and down the town, with drunken sailors and drunken fights everywhere. This situation was kept moderately in check by the US Navy Military Police; this excellent body of men were extremely tough. They were usually rather short and muscular, walking with that American habit of swinging the hands across one's front; they were dressed in a sailor's rig, but with a white steel helmet, white belt, and knee-high white gaiters; all this white, particularly the helmet, led to them being known as Snowdrops. They patrolled the city in fours, swinging at their side a two-foot-long truncheon, which they used extremely freely on occasion; if they entered a pub where there was a fracas, they would lay about them indiscriminately, and the pavement outside would be littered with sailors with sore heads. This made a marked contrast to our own Military Police, enormous straight-backed men, dressed in smart battle-dress and white belt and gaiters, all topped by a red service cap with vertical peak down over the nose. These Redcaps patrolled in pairs, in step steadily progressing through the town, exerting their authority very effectively with a certain menacing dignity.

After six months of pleasant living in Edinburgh, our life became much more realistic and arduous. In September, 1942, we were sent to Wrotham Camp, a group of Nissen huts overlooking the Pilgrims' Way in Kent. Wrotham was a pre-OCTU unit ( Officer Cadet Training Unit ), and the course was designed to weed out the weaklings before the OCTU itself. It was deliberately tough; we wore denims the whole time ( not the present-day tailored jeans; denims were the army's working overalls, and consisted of heavy, baggy battle-dress. ). With these denims we wore full webbing kit, belt and shoulder-straps, and all this, plus boots, had to be kept spotlessly clean in an exceedingly muddy camp. Our capacity for bad language grew and grew. And we had to "double" everywhere, even when alone, and certainly as a squad. "Double march" is the army equivalent of a smart jog, with forearms drawn up to the shoulders. It sounds utterly absurd now, but at the time, if I was walking alone to the Naafi, and an NCO shouted "Cadet, DOUBLE" -- I doubled. What we all dreaded was to be found wanting, and returned to some obscure fate as a Gunner, the lowest rank in the Artillery.

At Wrotham, there was more of everything; gun-drill, orienteering, gunnery; and a very nasty quarry, full of ditches, which we had to crawl across while instructors with Bren-guns fired live ammunition over our heads. The course was divided into several sections, one of which was "Driving and Maintenance". My ability to drive, and to ride a motor-bike, plus my rough and ready knowledge of maintenance from my old motor- bike and Brad's old cars; all this helped me to pass a preliminary test, and to be able to skip the full course, it being thought unnecessary for me. And so it was that I was moved on to OCTU in advance of the others; by chance, they went to Catterick, and I went to Alton Towers, a place I'd never heard of, leaving my friends behind. ( Duncan went into the Indian Army, and we didn't meet again until after the war).

Alton Towers in those days was in quiet countryside, it's false towers creating a feeling of medieval muddle. It had superb gardens, and at the bottom of a steep escarpment there was the very quiet village of Alton, with it's few houses, a little railway station on a branch line, and a village hall, made entirely of corrugated iron, where there was a rather rowdy dance every Saturday night. The house, commandeered and left empty, had been taken over as an OCTU, the cadets sleeping in huts in the grounds. I now found myself in a very different atmosphere, and one that did me an awful lot of good. Instead of the group of like-minded boys that I'd just left, I joined a squad of men who were being commissioned from the ranks; there were ex-sergeants and bombardiers ( two stripes in the Royal Artillery ) gunners who'd been in the North Africa campaign, and so on. They were men of considerable experience, and great good humour; they were all older than me, but accepted me with friendliness and a fair amount of teasing. Quite apart from the course, these men themselves were an education to me. As old soldiers they knew the Army's ways, and were happy to share their street-wise knowledge on how to do things best.

The first half of the six-month course at Alton Towers was devoted mainly to extremely tough infantry training, surprisingly enough. There were indeed many lectures on gunnery, regimental organization, and so on, by the officer instructors; but most of each day was spent in strenuous infantry exercises out on the bracken-covered hills, taking it in turn to take the role of every member of an infantry platoon, from rifleman up to platoon commander; until we could do each job in our sleep. ( One platoon, a second lieutenant's command, = 30 men in three sections -- a junior NCO in command of each section )The exercises themselves produced two platoons of sweating cadets, attacking "enemy strong-points" with live ammunition and grenades, at loose all over the hills. The strong-points were invariably at the top of a hill, and the cry "Come on ,the man with the Bren," could be heard echoing about as that poor unfortunate doubled uphill, with the Bren machine gun, the platoon's heaviest weapon, bouncing bruisingly on his shoulder. This extremely healthy three months finished with a week of battle-school at Penmaenmawr, North Wales, where the hills were much more rugged, the daily pressure much more concentrated; and which culminated in a twenty-mile march across the mountains in full battle-kit, which ended wading waist-deep down a mountain stream. This was in late December, but in spite of this I emerged fit and healthy, and went on Christmas leave feeling pretty proud of myself.

The second three months of the OCTU course was devoted to guns and gunnery. The British 25-pounder Field-Gun was a first-rate weapon, modern, mobile, flexible. It could fire a 25-pound shell up to 12000 yards, and above all it was accurate. If properly handled, it could drop a shell within 10 yards of a target, thus ensuring the safety of our own infantry or tanks, and the death and destruction of the enemy. To achieve all this, all those who handled or commanded the guns had to know their job, and the job of every other man. A crew of six men on a gun each had an instant, swift, and accurate task to perform, hence the all-importance of gun-drill, which we did every day, shifting from one job to the next. The insistence on this sort of training was consistent with the principle that an officer should be able to do the job of every man under his command, and if possible do it better -- and this principle was not confined to gun-drill; it applied to the teaching throughout the course.

Consequently, we did gun-drill every day. We did it competitively, section against section, urged on loudly by NCO instructors, and timed by sardonic officers; if one made a really foolish mistake, the punishment was to double round the very large garden lake carrying a 25-pound shell, to arrive back purple and breathless to the smirks of one's friends. People sometimes criticize drill of any sort, calling it mindless; but they miss the point. Learning a task so that it becomes instinctive and remains accurate whatever the stress, demands an alert concentration, an anticipatory state of mind. And in war, if you're frightened, or one of your gun-crew is killed or wounded, all this ingrained drill carries you through; you carry on with the job, and take over the vacant place. At all levels the sense of having something responsible to do, a sense of bloody-minded team-work, was a great preventer of panic. After all, it would be no good at all if the gun-layer had a headache, and everyone ran around in circles screaming because they couldn't do his job, and they couldn't find the aspirin.

Still on the subject of drill and it's critics, ordinary parade-ground foot- and rifle-drill needed the same qualities of alertness and prompt, smart action. We took it in turns to be " drill-sergeant ", and you had to know what you were doing, faced with a squad of sixty men. Equally, they had to know what they were doing; and most important of all, they had to trust you to know your stuff. Any indecision or hesitancy, or command given on the wrong foot, could lead to the most terrible snarl-up, or perhaps to the whole lot disappearing haphazard into the shrubberies. Actually, I wasn't bad at drilling a squad; I could make my voice carry some distance, and I had a good sense of rhythm and timing, and I never let a squad disappear from sight because I couldn't think what to say. In fact, being in the squad itself on these occasions, being drilled by a cadet who knew what he was doing, was a quite pleasant exercise. The Royal Artillery rate of marching was deliberate, not fast -- a very comfortable rate. Being drilled, one had to be alert, ready for any of the manoevres a squad can be put through, ready to wheel right or left, or about turn with great stamping steps before marching off smartly in the new direction. If one was being drilled by a good man, the mutual confidence and rhythm would grow, until heads held higher, backs straighter, arms swung higher, and a certain proud swagger would enter the squad. At the end of an hour like that, we certainly did not feel like unthinking automatons; it was more like formation dancing, but in hob-nail boots.

The afternoon was devoted to gunnery, map-reading, regimental organisation and so on. Gunnery, as opposed to gun-drill, covered all aspects of command of the gun, from Observation Post (OP) to Gun Position Officer (GPO) and concerned the bringing down of fire accurately on target. This needed accuracy, swift decision, and a system of signaling by telephone or radio which was free from any misunderstanding. The old chestnut about "send reinforcements, I'm going to advance" reaching the other end as "Send three and fourpence, I'm going to a dance" simply would not do.

Briefly then, the aim of the second half of the course was to turn out an efficient officer, who has a working knowledge of all aspects of regimental life This included; last but not least 'Man Management', covered mostly by the principle that in dealing with tired men at the end of the day, it was the officer's responsibility to make sure firstly that the vehicles were maintained, filled and ready to go next day; secondly, that the men were billeted and fed; thirdly, and only then, the officer could go to his own meal and his place of rest. During our last month, we were visited by a little fat tailor, all the way form Saville Row, who measured us for our barathea service dresses, Sam Browne belts etc. He came back for two fittings, and turned us out very well tailored indeed. As far as I remember, my service dress, tunic, and two pairs of trousers, in best barathea, cost me £18.

Our last effort at OCTU was a fortnight of Firing Camp at Trawsfynydd, a very bleak spot (the RA always liked to use bleak spots) in the Welsh hills. The rain came down mercilessly and the wind blew, but we had the great satisfaction of towing and manhandling the guns in this rugged place, and then actually firing them. In a letter home, I described the elation of firing them for the first time, the roar and the smoke, and the recoil changing our all our previous gun drill into a pale imitation. In the same letter, I also describe the atmosphere in a little tin café in the evening, smoke filled, with about twenty cadets eating, reading, writing letters, with the background of one cadet playing dance tunes on a honky-tonk piano. This was our only social life in Trawsfynydd.

Soon after that the time came for out passing out parade, when we marched past the CO as fully fledged Second Lieutenants, our new uniforms worn with a rather self conscious pride. By this time, postings to regiments had been arranged and I found myself posted to the Essex Yeomanry.

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Peter Mitchell’s Memoirs


    part 1

    part 2

    part 3

Early Years

Clifton College

Outbreak of War



Essex Yeomanry