'What the regiment loses by your conversion, your new corps will gain. The spirit in which you are accepting this change is the real proof that you are true Loyals. Although you are no longer part of The Loyal Regiment, you can – and I know you will – live up to your old motto, Loyaute M’Oblige.'
– Brigadier John Wells, Colonel of The Loyal Regiment, to 7th Loyals on the battalion being converted to 92nd LAA at Redcar, November 15, 1941.
'You are proud to be Loyals, and the division is proud of you. You can feel happy and proud to have fought through from D-Day and to have earned, by your behaviour and your skill and courage, the affection and admiration of 3rd British Infantry Division.'
– Major-General Lashmer ‘Bolo’ Whistler, officer commanding 3rd British Infantry Division, to 92nd LAA on the regiment leaving the division at Sennelager, Germany, June 11, 1945.
FROM CIVILIANS TO SOLDIERS
July 1940 to February 1941
‘The sum total of the training equipment consisted of 40 rifles, half a dozen impressed vehicles and a few boxes of grenades. Everything was either made of wood, borrowed for the afternoon – or simply imagined.’
THE summer of 1940 was the most desperate hour in Britain’s long history. On May 10, barely a month after overrunning Denmark and Norway, Hitler unleashed his offensive in the West.
Over the next three weeks, the German panzer armies scythed through the Low Countries and Northern France, as they had done in Poland the previous September, carrying all before them with their blitzkrieg.
Trapped against the sea at Dunkirk, the British Expeditionary Force escaped by a miracle – 338,000 men snatched from the jaws of the Germans thanks to an evacuation fleet of ships large and small.
By late June, most of the British soldiers who had managed to avoid captivity were back home. But the Army lay stunned and virtually impotent, having left behind most of its guns and equipment in France. Bestriding the Channel coast, Hitler stood triumphant, ready to invade unless an ignominious peace was agreed.
But even at this darkest moment, the mood in Britain was one of defiance, resolution and a calm conviction that there would be no surrender. Inspired by its new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, the nation was determined to go down fighting rather than be engulfed by the tide of Nazi barbarism.
As Britain looked to its defences and waited for the blow to fall, the call-up of men for military service gained fresh urgency. If the Germans came, the new recruits would be thrown into the battle. If invasion was averted, these men would build the armies which one day would go back across the Channel and liberate Europe.
Up and down the country, old and famous regiments found their ranks swelled by recruits who would very quickly have to be turned from civilians into soldiers. So it was that on July 4, 1940, the 7th Battalion of The Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire) was officially raised at the Loyals’ headquarters in Fulwood Barracks, Preston, based around a cadre of regulars –15 officers and 150 other ranks.
Strictly speaking, the battalion was being re-formed, since the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Loyals had been established during the First World War, seeing action on the Western Front. As the regiment prepared to accept its new intake, goodbyes were being said in homes throughout Merseyside, Lancashire and Cheshire, from where the bulk of the unit’s men were recruited.
Fathers, sons, uncles and brothers who until now had been workers in factories, offices, shops or shipyards, found themselves called to the colours – and the destination on their travel warrants was Caernarvon, North Wales. There, at Coed Helen Camp, a large country house surrounded by a stretch of woodland within sight of the medieval castle that dominates the town, the cadre from the Loyals arrived on July 5 ready to receive a total of 850 recruits.
Soldiers in the cadre included warrant officers, NCOs, tradesmen, cooks and batmen, several of whom had seen service with the British Expeditionary Force in France. During the retreat to Dunkirk, the Loyals had fought with exceptional valour and determination, and were among the last soldiers off the beaches.
This core of professionals brought with it ‘a steadying influence of peacetime service and discipline’, wrote Major Peter Crane, MC, one of the officers tasked with helping set up the new battalion.
There was also a sprinkling of new recruits in the cadre, one of whom was Joseph Worrall, a 23-year-old from Farnworth, Bolton. He had been called up in January that year and had already completed his basic training. So when the cadre went to Caernarvon to prepare for the arrival of the bulk of the 7th Loyals, he was promoted to lance corporal.
On July 17, the first intake of 200 men was received at Coed Helen and posted to A Company. Six days later, David Lloyd George, who had been Prime Minister during the First World War and was MP for Caernarvon, came to the camp to address the recruits. Next day, the second contingent of 200 men arrived – to be posted to B Company – and a further 400 men two days later, who were split into C and D companies.
Out of the whole intake, more than 600 came from Liverpool and district, 120 from London and the rest from various locations, mainly Lancashire and Cheshire. The recruits were a mixed bunch in terms of age, ranging from their late teens to their late twenties.
My father, Leo McCarthy, was 29 when he made his way down to Caernarvon from Birkenhead, where he had been a labourer at the Cammell Laird shipyard. On the train taking him to the camp on July 24, he met another conscript, Jack Hartill from Ellesmere Port, who was of similar age and with whom he would form a lifelong friendship.
Among the hundreds of Liverpool recruits – the Scousers who made up the bulk of 7th Loyals – were Billy Baker, Peter Connelly, Michael Cullen, Douglas Davies, James Lyon, John Potter, Henry Woodall, Philip Gregg and Tom ‘Mogsy’ Mason.
The 7th battalion started training at Coed Helen with the 8th and 9th Loyals, which were raised at the same time. The three new battalions made up No 15 Infantry Group, under Colonel O E Scarfe. Later, with the 12th Royal Welch Fusiliers, they formed 215 Infantry Brigade.
The 7th’s commanding officer was Lieutenant-Colonel M Wilson, the second-in-command was Major (later Lieutenant- Colonel) William Plant and the adjutant was Captain (later Major) Peter Crane.
Two days after the battalion was fully formed, a German plane flew over the camp and dropped two bombs to the south, but there were no casualties. However, it was realised that the open ground where the camp had been established was vulnerable to air attack and towards the end of July all units moved to a site nearer Caernarvon, where trees and hedges gave better protection.
At first, shortage of equipment was acute for the fledgling infantry unit. ‘Training difficulties were very intense in the early stages,’ Major Crane later wrote. ‘The sum total of the training equipment consisted of 40 rifles, half a dozen impressed vehicles and a few boxes of grenades. Everything was either made of wood, borrowed for the afternoon – or simply imagined.’
The lack of basic necessities extended to furniture. Finding there was not enough seating for the recruits in the camp’s meal tents, officers had to scour Caernarvon to try to make up the shortage – and even borrowed benches from local chapels.
As the men tried to settle into dozens of bell tents strung out across the Coed Helen estate, it was very much make do and mend. ‘We were still wearing our civilian clothes for weeks after we got there and drilling with broom handles,’ recalled Ronald Prince, a Birkenhead-born printer who was called up into the 7th Loyals at the age of 28 and later became a corporal in the battalion.
In his memoirs, Michael Cullen left a vivid and often colourful account of his service with 7th Loyals after he was allocated to D Company. ‘I was issued with a travel warrant and ten shillings and told to report to Coed Helen Camp,’ he recalled. ‘We were certainly a motley crew as we travelled down from the ’Pool with our little gas masks in cardboard boxes and were excited to know what lay in store.
‘We were soon to find out! On arrival at Caernarvon station, we were greeted with a roar like an elephant breaking wind! On the platform was a man with a gold laurel wreath on his sleeve, a chest like Frank Bruno and a neck like a bull terrier! Get fell in! was the order.
‘We assumed he had been assigned to knock us into some sort of shape. We learned later that his name was Len Nott. I think the “Nott” meant that he was “Nott” to be trifled with. And you can take it from me that nobody tried.’ Len Nott was the Regimental Sergeant Major. A former cotton mill worker from Summerseat, near Bury, he had joined the Loyals in 1925 at the age of 18 and was with the regiment during the Dunkirk evacuation.
Michael Cullen continued: ‘On arrival at the camp, which consisted of a large number of bell tents and several other large tents, we were marched into the dining tent and partook of one kipper and a plate of prunes and custard plus three slices of bread and marge. After the meal, we were issued with three rough Army blankets and one groundsheet and were billetted eight men to a tent. We slept on the ground with just the groundsheet underneath.’
When eventually the recruits received their uniforms and equipment, it was all a bit hit-and-miss. ‘We were marched to the quartermaster’s stores to be fitted out with kit. The quartermaster was an old Army lag who wasn’t very fussy whether the uniform fitted or not. Two pairs of each article were issued – the two pairs of cellular underpants he gave me would have looked well on a cab horse! If I had stitched up the ends I’m sure I could have got a hundredweight of tatties in each leg!
‘We were then told to dress and come out on parade. Len Nott took one look at us and nearly burst a blood vessel. “If only Hitler could see you now, he’d die laughing,” he said. In retrospect, I think that I agreed with him.
‘In the days that followed, we had inoculations which put us all out of action for three days. I think at this point I had developed quite an aversion to Army life, and longed to be home again and sampling Mom’s cooking and sleeping once again in a nice soft bed. Alas, this was just wishful thinking. We consoled ourselves with the thought tha tthe war would be over in a few months’ time, and we could all get back home again. Little did we know that we had another six years of it to face and God knows what lay ahead.
‘The few months that followed consisted of small arms (rifle and Bren gun) training – the Bren being the Army’s latest toy. PT was at 6am, then breakfast – which consisted of lumpy porridge, tinned American bacon and perhaps some baked beans. Once a week, there was a fried egg. After breakfast, it was on parade for inspection and God help you if you hadn’t shaved properly!
‘We had, of course, to shave in cold water and this usually meant hacking lumps of flesh from the face and sticking bits of paper on the cuts to stem the bleeding. As Len Nott would say, “I’ve got a right bleeding shower here!”’
Tom Mason had a similar experience on arrival at Coed Helen. He recalled how their first meal was a pot of plum jam, a loaf and half a kipper. ‘We slept eight men to a tent, but there were no beds, we lay on the ground. We were still in civvies for weeks and at first only had old Ross rifles from the First World War to train with.’
Coming to terms with military life was not easy for many of the men and led to some amusing situations. Tom recalled how one young conscript was put on sentry duty at the entrance to the camp and instructed by his NCO that if anyone in uniform approached, he was to turn out the guard. Soon after, the rather nervous new soldier saw a uniformed figure heading his way and shouted for the guard to turn out. The troops duly emerged from the guard hut, armed and ready – only to find the local postman riding towards the camp entrance on his bike.
However, Tom and his comrades gradually became used to the routine and got to know one another, forming firm friendships. They also got to know their officers, including one who was rather too fond of a drink. One day, meeting a group of off-duty soldiers in the street in Caernarvon, and being rather the worse for wear, this officer forgot he was not in camp and ordered the men to start drilling. Baffled and bemused, the raw Loyals could only comply – an order was an order, after all. Passers-by looked on in amazement as the men were marched up and down the road.
However, such light-hearted episodes were few and far between as the war situation deteriorated and a German invasion was thought to be imminent following the Fall of France. Throughout the summer and early autumn, training was combined with beach defence, patrols and practice alerts, taking the 7th as far south along the coast as Aberdovey, where a second camp was established.
By now, the whole country was on watch for Hitler’s advance forces – and in the early hours of September 8, the alarm was raised at Coed Helen of possible German seaborne landings along the nearby coast. Soldiers of the 7th hurriedly took up positions facing the beach near Llanfaglan churchyard and awaited the enemy. But it was a false alarm. By 3.30pm that afternoon, the battalion was stood down.
With the onset of autumn, the weather worsened and the tented camp at times became almost uninhabitable as it was battered by wind and rain. However, on September 28 the stay in Wales finally ended when the battalion was transferred by train to Liverpool to take up its first major operational role – helping protect the port against German invasion.
The 7th’s base was to the north of the city in Great Crosby, with headquarters at the Northern Cricket Ground in Elm Avenue. A and C companies were stationed at Seaforth Barracks in nearby Waterloo and the rest of the regiment in billets in Seaforth and Blundellsands. Coming under the command of Mersey Garrison, the 7th – working with four Home Guard battalions – covered one of four defence zones for the Liverpool area.
Liverpool was now the most vital port in the kingdom, a gateway for the convoys that later became Britain’s lifeline and the nerve centre of the Battle of the Atlantic. ‘Here the work became very hard,’ Major Crane wrote. ‘As, in addition to intense training, the battalion had a considerable operational role and was constantly called up to provide working parties for ships and docks.’
By now, the Luftwaffe had been defeated in the Battle of Britain after fierce combat and high casualties on both sides, and as winter approached, the threat of invasion in 1940 receded. Instead, Hitler targeted British cities with his bombers and in November and December, Merseyside suffered major air raids as the Luftwaffe attacked the miles of docks and wharves either side of the river and the shipyards of Cammell Laird on the Birkenhead shore.
As the Blitz took its terrible toll, the 7th Loyals were drafted in to help tackle gigantic fires which blazed for days in Liverpool’s Gladstone and Alexandra docks. Throughout Christmas, contingents of 100 soldiers battled night and day. During one dramatic operation, the men found themselves wading up to their ankles through molten rubber, which was flowing off a blazing ship.
‘There was a consignment of Wellington boots nearby on the dockside and we grabbed them and put them on to protect ourselves,’ Ronald Prince recalled. To the men’s indignation, a punctilious officer warned them they might face a looting charge. However, reason apparently prevailed and no such charges materialised.
For many men of the 7th, this period was doubly agonising, because Liverpool and Birkenhead were their home towns. As they stood guard and saw the night skies ablaze, or fought fires in the midst of the air raids, they had no way of knowing if their loved ones had become victims. ‘The bombing was very bad,’ said Tom Mason. ‘It was hell on Earth.’
Michael Cullen recalled: ‘The Germans had started in earnest to bomb the docks and town. We had been sent over to help unload the large shells and distribute same to the many heavy ack-ack (anti-aircraft) batteries that ringed the city. The raids were very heavy at times. The whole city seemed to be on fire. The noise of the guns and explosions was deafening. As we went through the streets, we could hear the “ping-ping” of the shrapnel as it bounced off the pavements. The fire engines and ambulances were working non-stop through the night. It was mayhem.’
It was the Blitz that inflicted the battalion’s first fatal casualty. As the air raids disrupted civilian services, the 7th took on postal duties during the busy Christmas period and Private Albert Stones, who volunteered for this work, was killed by a bomb blast in billets in Bootle on December 21.
Despite the mayhem of the air raids, the battalion’s normal training was fitted in as often as possible, with the emphasis on physical fitness. Every day, sometimes before breakfast, the men would be sent out on runs of ten or even 15 miles. The soldiers also regularly took advantage of the nearby rifle ranges at Altcar, giving them an excellent grounding in firing small arms.
But as 1941 opened, another period of change dawned for the 7th. At the start of February, the CO, Colonel Wilson, stepped down because of illness and his second-in-command, Major Plant, took over – later being promoted to lieutenant-colonel. On February 3, the 200th anniversary of The Loyal Regiment was celebrated with a parade at the Marine football ground in Blundellsands, followed by a march through Blundellsands, Crosby and Waterloo. There was a welcome bonus for the men – a half day’s holiday.