Symphony in B-Flak
First Movement: ENGLAND
GROUND DEFENSE OF GREAT BRITAIN
BRONZE STAR FOR Ist CAMPAIGN
...Announcement is made (by Headquarters, European Theater of Operations, 30 April, 1945) that the units listed below are awarded battle credit for participation in "Ground Combat"...
Battery B, 115th AAA Gun Battalion.
15 January, 1944, to 20 September, 1944
The "Strathnaver" steamed into Liverpool on Dec. 15, 3100 miles from N.Y. The sight of land was gratifying after ten days of choppy seas. The ship lay in the harbor for one day, and everyone welcomed the rest and the opportunity to settle his stomach and regain his "land-legs". While she made fast to the wharf, an American Band gave us a rousing welcome. We exchanged greetings from the various portholes with a group of Tommies, and tossed them packs and even cartons of cigarettes in answer to their requests.
The rest of the battalion debarked at once, but this Battery remained aboard ship an additional day to act as MP's. Our job was simple enough -- we had to keep corridors and stairways open so that contingents moving out were unhampered.
Finally, burdened with field pack, bedroll and duffelbag, we made the trek to the station. There we received the hospitality of Red Cross hostesses -- a hospitality to be enjoyed many more times in England and on the Continent. The coffee and doughnuts were superb, but aside from that, the smiles and jokes of the girls were stimulating enough, and we could feel the old American spirit growing by leaps and bounds.
We then boarded one of those half-pint trains, funny little single truck wheels, which at first was really odd, and set forth for our first view of Merrie England. It was a mixture of surprise and fun. We expected to see extensive bomb ruins, but as we soon learned, the damage was not universal, and many effects of the blitz had been removed by the cooperation of all the people. Instead, we saw row upon row of brick and stone houses, each with a thousand chimneys -- so it seemed. For several reasons, the English do not use central heating widely, and they seem to have a chimney for each hearth, with no regard for uniformity. Another English characteristic was the innumerable gardens, yards, plots of land, each well defined by a stone fence or hedge-row.
After a forty-mile ride we stopped at a practically deserted LMS station (London, Midland, Scotland), and spotted a sign, in between the Bovril and Ovaltine ads, that said, "Manchester". The twinges in our stomachs warned us that it was well past twelve noon, and the inevitable "C" rations would be welcome now.
Manchester, Lancashire, the 4th city of England and the 5th of the Empire, boasted a prewar population of 770,000. Shc was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution and rose to become one of the leading manufacturing cities of the Empire. Particularly in textiles is Manchester famous, and her Lancashire cloths are known the world over. She was one of the first cities in England to have a free public library, and through a unique system one can get any book desired, either current or ancient, within three days, regardless of where the book is in the United Kingdom. Here too is the Avro Aircraft, Ltd., the home of the famed Lancaster and the new Lincoln.
Our quarters in Manchester were, if nothing else, spacious. The sprawling building with the glass roof and the concrete floor littered with straw suggested that it might have been used for one purpose, but there was no odor, so we know we were wrong. One fellow saw the sign "ZOO" over the entrance and saw the gate closed behind him and remarked: "At last, Baker Battery has found a home". A few days of interior decoration "a la TM 444-444" transformed the former Exhibition Hall into a rather cozy barracks. The redeeming feature was that it was located within Bellevue Park, a vast amusement park -- the most famous in all England and scarcely a mile from the center of the city. What a park! Visitors came from far and wide to see the Botanical and Zoological Gardens, and in particular the world famous "Tiglon", a cross between a lion and a tiger. (One man tantalized the lions once too often, and left two small souvenirs in England--two fingers! The lion died six days later!) Add to this miniature trains, rollercoasters, boxing and wrestling matches, the circus. There were two private dance floors, but if you followed the crowds, you ended up in the public Coronation Ballroom. And you've got to give those English girls credit -- they TRIED to jitterbug! The Ballroom, by having set aside special nights for old time dancing, catered to the elder people as well. It was not only in dancing that the oldsters held their own. There were three pubs (short for "public house") within the park, and half a dozen within a stone's throw of the wall surrounding the park (the wall -- remember?). The pub is a wonderful institution and a tribute to the English people -- a respectable place where a respectable family can go in the evening and have a respectable, good time. And did they do it!
Bitters, Guinness, Stout, Mild, Tetley's, special brews like No. 2, No. 5. All warm of course, but you get to like it, especially after the third one, when the community singing begins.
The days were damp, dark, dismal, drab and dreary. They were as remarkably short at this season as they were to grow remarkably long later in the summer. Strictly speaking it was even difficult to distinguish day from night, because the sun never shone. Correction -- the sun DID appear one day at 1358 hours for three minutes! But why talk of days. It was the nights! Black and damp nights, it is true, but not at all boring. One fellow, flashing his pass at the gate at 2300 hours one night, after bidding three girls good night, was heard by the guard to mumble something about "Night Life in the ETO". Remember "Redgate Lane"? A typical scene:
Christmas was at hand before we knew it, and everybody's face reflected the dejection that was in his heart. Christmas 3000 miles from home! The good people of Manchester took us to themselves, and sent us so many invitations that there were not enough of us to go around. They wanted us to feel "at home" and they succeeded beyond our fondest hopes. Although food in England was strictly rationed the dinners were surprisingly excellent. There were meats and poultry that must have cost many a point, and for "sweets" there were plum puddings and cookies and tarts. Again on Boxing day and on New Year's Day they renewed their hospitality and cemented our strong bond of friendship. And certainly one of the sweetest of their "sweets" is that traditional party custom they have when the Old Year bows to the New -- each fellow is privileged to kiss all the girls present.
We in turn invited about 500 children of the neighborhood to our area for a Christmas Party. The news spread like wildfire, and when the gates were opened, at least 1200 of them poured through. Each one in camp that day was to be host to a child, but most of us ended up with several clustered around us. Since we did not have enough rations for our extra guests,the fellows exhausted their personal rations to make up the deficit. The place was alive with excitement. The highlight was the appearance of Coco the Clown and several other circus performers who kindly agreed to assist us. The children seemed to recognise Coco for what he was -- the internationally famous clown, the most popular in all Europe -- because they crowded so close to him in such a mass that he could only begin to perform for them. The children remained with us for several ours, inspecting our barracks and our personal equipment. So reluctant were they to leave that we could only accomplish this by passing candy to them as they passed through the gate. We tried to spread cheer among the kiddies, but the men themselves were equally affected. "Gee! They all kissed me goodby! "Gosh, they all held on to me and didn't want to leave!" After hearing this and seeing the smiles, we wondered WHO spread WHAT cheer!
When you stepped out of camp all "dolled up" for a Sunday pass, the first thing you encountered when you went to catch a tram was a queue. This queue, however, wasn't a riotous, unorganised, crushing mob, but resembled rather a well-disciplined Army chow line. Moreover, you were surprised to find that this queue was not on the right-hand side of the street, because all English traffic rides on the "wrong" side. Likely as not, while in the queue, children would sidle up to you and ask, "Any goom, choom? or, "Cigarette for my father?" Here comes the tram.
It was somewhat baffling at first to hear the tram conductor, invariably a woman, ask firmly for the fare, "Three hay-p'n'y, please". Before long we were saying "three and six" without a ruffle, and were tossing pence, shillings, florins, and half crowns about with abandon. We knew that a pound was equal to $ 4.035, which made the shilling worth 20 c, the sixpence worth a dime, and the penny worth 2c. Somehow, though, when playing craps or poker, the pound and 10-shilling notes used to slip away much easier than a $5 or a $ 1 bill ever would.
On Sundays the Catholics would march in formation to St. Ann's Church, the Protestants to St. John's (Church of England), College Chapel, or Longsight Presbyterian. We might strive to keep cadence by whistling "Onward Christian Soldier", but it was always interrupted by waves and cheerful greetings from passers-by, and by requests for gum from the children who followed us. After Church we all crowded into a tea room nearby and gorged ourselves on cakes and tea, or maybe it was fish 'n' chips.
Close order drill was held daily in the walks of Bellevue Park. In addition, the schedule provided for frequent hikes through the city, its suburbs like Salford, and even into the surrounding country. The streets of Manchester were not "planned", but they are quite wide, and they extend out from the center of the city like a spider web. On these streets, then, we would hike with "Uncle Bill" Klatte, our Executive Officer. Usually we returned with plenty of exercise under our belt, and in addition such military necessities as lighter fluid and food of all kinds. Food WAS a necessity in those days, because all we could get from Hieronymus' Horrible hash House was Vienna sausage. Hikers who had difficulty keeping the pace frequently returned to camp by tram, eh Sector? One day we fell out in Piccadilly Square. Naturally the place was crowded, so we began to talk and pass out the cigarettes. Or dear topkick, Sgt. Anderson, blew his whistle until he was blue in the face before we coult get away from the people in order to fall in.
We had turned all our organizational equipment in at Fort Dix. Now we patiently awaited a new issue, so that we could discontinue the daily schedule of three or four hours of infantry drill. Finally it arrived, and despite the fact that we had no radar to put us on the beam, we found ourselves as busy as bees in a sugar factory--removing cosmolene from the guns and machine guns, learning the intricacies of the new M-9, loosening up the trucks.
When the equipment was in good shape, we received our first "March Order" overseas and on Jan. 25 set out with part of the Battery to calibrate the guns. The convoy led through the dense manufacturing district of Lancashire and Yorkshire. It was rolling country and the floor of the valleys for miles and miles seemed to be but one vast factory thrusting a thousand smokestacks like fingers towards the sky. We passed through Leeds, Yorkshire, famous for its textile and other manufactures. More interesting to the sightseer was the smaller town of York, the county seat of Yorkshire, with its ancient and beautiful Cathedral and the walls that made the town a fortress in days gone by.
After a trip of 110 miles, we arrived at our destination -- the historical and quaint old village on the northeast coast of England and on the North Sea, Whitby, Yorkshire. This town had its beginnings as a tiny fishing village. It was the scene of several supernatural tales, the most widely known of which is Dracula, and the natives were highly superstitious. It is said that they believed Dracula stomped about in the graveyard on the hill overlooking the village. There is a chair there carved out of solid rock that is called "Dracula's Chair". The cemetery itself is very old and grave-heads of the 11th and 12th centuries are not uncommon. To reach these burial grounds one must climb 199 rough, worn, stone steps.
The beautiful Esk river flows through the center of the town to the sea. There are many other inlets in the vicinity. These afforded the pirates and privateers a lair in which to hide and from which to pounce on their unsuspecting prey.
Out of the sea here is washed a mineral which has come to be known as jet. Down through the centuries the inhabitants of this town have perfected the art of carving it intricately and polishing it. This is the famous Witby Jet, superior by far to that other jet which is found along the coast.
The city itself is still small and picturesque. That portion which is on the left bank of the Esk is built on two levels. Access to the upper city is by the Khyber Pass, or if on foot, by any one of several stone steps mounting the hillside. Streets are still very narrow, and the turns in them are precarious. Some are absolutely impassable by even as small an "auto" as a jeep.
On the bluff on the right bank of the Esk stands an old, abandoned, and ruined Abbey. The architectural work of the parts that still remain is remarkable. The Abbey, built in the 10th century, has huge stone blocks weighing tons which were put in place by man and horse only. There are two spires with steps that go steadily upward and around, each perfect in respect to the other, each meeting the center guide stone at a perfect point and subtending an equal portion of the opposite wall. On the way to the Abbey you pass the statue of Capt. James Cook, the famous English navigator of the 18th century, whose home and base was Whitby.
Many of the people of Whitby today seek their livelihood from fishing. But the town itself has become noted as a summer resort for the influential people of the entire country. It was in one of the large seashore hotels that we were provided with billets. The hotels had not been heated for some time, both as an air-raid precaution and on account of the shortage of fuel. We followed this practice, although the weather was "bracing", to say the least.
While there we met the famous Scotch regulars of the "Black Watch". We encountered the British "mixed battery" for the first time, and met many A.T.S. girls (Army Territorial Service). We patronised the English canteen called the NAAFI (Navy, Army, Air Force Institute). We were guests of the Tommies at their well known "Sergeants' Mess". Meantime, we had set our guns down on a high bluff overlooking the Sea. The weather gods were not propitious all the time, but by the end of five days all the guns had been calibrated, and we retraced our route to Manchester.
When we finally arrived at Bellevue Park, we found our many friends (including the girls) waiting to watch our arrival. They cheered and shoutied lustily. But their happiness and ours was shortlived, because on Feb. 2 we received March Order. The movement was supposed to be a secret, but somehow the girls learned about it, and on the night before our scheduled departure they came to see us. Promises were made, and tears mixed with kisses. Farewell, Manchester, but not Goodby!