THE YORKSHIRE COAST
February to November 1941
‘There was deep snow and frost and in it the men had to dig trenches, dugouts and shelters, in which they lived entirely. The men were thrown entirely on their own initiative. It would be difficult to imagine a harder or more exacting life.’
TWO weeks later, the battalion was on the move again – across the Pennines by train to the North Riding of Yorkshire, to take up positions along the cliff-lined coast either side of Whitby with 215 Infantry Brigade as part of the Durham and North Riding Division.
The 9th Loyals were based at Scarborough, the 8th Loyals at Saltburn-by-the-Sea and the 7th Loyals at Ravenscar. Again, the 7th’s role was coastal defence, guarding against possible German airborne or seaborne landings at Whitby or nearby Scarborough. Battalion headquarters was at the Raven Hall Hotel, Ravenscar, with A and C companies at Cloughton, B Company at Robin Hood’s Bay and D Company at Hayburn Wyke.
‘The battalion’s role was entirely operational and training was fitted in wherever possible,’ wrote Major Crane. ‘However, opportunities for normal training were very few, as for many months the unit stood to along a 30-mile front with a scale of 50 per cent all night and 100 per cent at dusk and dawn.’
It was a hard winter. ‘There was deep snow and frost and in it the men had to dig trenches, dugouts and shelters, in which they lived entirely. The men were thrown entirely on their own initiative and for weeks on end knew no pleasures or entertainment of any sort. There were a few casualties from mines and several from exposure. It would be difficult to imagine a harder or more exacting life. The whole front was patrolled continuously every night and sections had to dig into the cliffs, which rise to 600ft in places.’
During this time, the battalion had to acquaint itself with a variety of weapons, including Vickers and Browning medium machine guns, Lewis guns, six-pounder Hotchkiss guns and beach and anti-personnel mines. ‘Wiring was a wholetime job, with constant revetting of billets and weapons pits. A French 75mm gun was promised, but – perhaps fortunately – never materialised.’
As well as patrolling, one of the assignments for a detachment of men in Whitby was raising the anti-submarine boom in the harbour each morning to let the fishing fleet into the North Sea. Since it was wound up by hand, it was an arduous task. However, there was compensation in the form of fish from the grateful skippers when they returned in their boats.
Tragedy struck along the coast on April 6, when Privates William Hewitt and Edward McGreavy were killed by a German sea mine which exploded after being washed ashore. On the 25th, there was a heavy air raid, with hundreds of incendiaries and a land mine falling, but no casualties despite a bomb exploding 500 yards from battalion billets at Fyling Hall.
Michael Cullen wasbilleted in a disused railway station at Hayburn Wyke. ‘It was about three months now since we had slept in a bed and here we were again, kipping on the floor of a station waiting room,’ he recalled. ‘Next morning, we were marched about two miles along a disused railway track and taken to a slit trench that had been dug out of the cliff top about ten feet from the edge and facing a very wild and angry sea. The weather was very cold with about two feet of snow on the ground.
‘At one end of the slit trench, a couple of corrugated iron sheets afforded the only shelter. We were equipped with old P14 rifles left over from the First World War. So this was Britain’s first line of defence against the Kraut invasion! I shudder to think of the outcome if Hitler had decided to invade.
‘I’m pretty sure that the whole regiment would have broken the four-minute mile and that Hitler’s army would have slipped up on the excrement that was left behind. Seriously though, the position was pretty hopeless, bearing in mind that we were largely untrained, untried and under-equipped.’
Despite the bitter cold, the sergeant ordered no fires should be lit. ‘“You must be on the alert at all times,” he told us. “Dinner is at 1pm and will be brought to you.” I had the feeling that come one o’clock we would all be frozen stiff. After the sergeant had gone, we proceeded to collect some dry bracken and packed it in the trench to try and generate a little heat.
‘The cold had really eaten into our bones. So on this particular night we decided to light a fire in an old oil drum. The bracken burned fiercely and gave out a good heat. We had lifted some spuds from a nearby field and proceeded to bake them in the fire.
‘It was about 5am and not yet daylight – the flames and sparks were leaping into the early morning sky. Suddenly, we heard the drone of an aeroplane – quite low. We thought it was one of ours – Coastal Command – until he let one go. He had apparently spotted the flames, had one bomb left and thought it a good place to deposit same.
‘Luckily for us, it went wide and landed in an adjacent field. However, the blast had blown us the full length of the trench and extinguished the fire in the process. When dawn arrived, we saw the crater some 50 yards away with two or three dead sheep lying nearby. It certainly warmed us up for the day and put a stop to the fires.’
On May 9, A Company moved from Larpool Hall, Whitby, to billets in Runswick Bay, Staithes and Skinningrove. B Company was transferred from Robin Hood’s Bay to Larpool Hall, and C Company moved to Whitby. D Company left Hayburn Wyke to base itself at Upgang and Sandsend. Near Whitby on June 4, a German plane crashed, killing three crew.
As the month ended, so did the battalion’s long, hard stint along the rugged coast. After being relieved by the 7th South Staffs,the Loyals were transferred some 20 miles north east to Darlington, County Durham, with headquarters at The Highland Laddie Inn, Haughton le Skerne.
Here in July, intensive training started in movement by motor transport and making swift contact with the enemy. But at the beginning of August, the battalion again found itself stationed on the coast, moving back north of its previous positions to the Redcar district, with headquarters at Kirkleatham Hall. On the 1st, a training plane made a forced landing on B Company‘s area and on the 19th, a German bomb broke 59 windows in their billets. From August 23 to 25, the battalion took part in an exercise to test co-operation between infantry and artillery in defence of Royal Artillery barracks and batteries. Coastal defences were strengthened.
September started with a mock attack by Commandos on the battalion headquarters. They penetrated the grounds, but could not get into the buildings. ‘Several weak spots were discovered,’ the war diary noted. On the fourth, two sea mines exploded on rocks near Redcar Pier, breaking many windows in the locality.
Five days later, the battalion took part in endurance tests and field firing exercises, with B Company the winner. ‘All ranks had a chance to learn the firepower of a company and the sound that various weapons and projectiles make. The exercises were most realistic – at times, almost too realistic,’ said the war diary.
This note of apprehension had a grim echo on September 15, when Private Sydney Taylor of A Company was killed as he stepped on an anti-tank mine while out on a working party.
October opened with the battalion undergoing anti- invasion exercises and concentrating on beach defence. D Company was despatched to guard Grangetown Aerodrome, near Middlesbrough. Ironically, Grangetown was only a decoy airfield, built to lure German bombers away from RAF Thornaby, six miles further west. Back in Redcar, a German bomber struck on the 21st, causing civilian casualties.
One rather dispiriting exercise for the battalion involved testing the Boys anti-tank rifle, which even at that early stage of the war was largely ineffectual against enemy armour. A Bren Gun carrier was driven on to the beach at Redcar and the men were assured by the CO, Colonel Plant, that the rifle’s bullet would blast a hole in the vehicle. ‘But it just bounced off,’ recalled Tom Mason. ‘It was useless.’
But even as the 7th Loyals was slowly being moulded into an infantry unit – one that, even at this early stage, showed much promise in its fighting skills – a different destiny was being decided for it. On October 29, 1941, orders came through that the battalion was to be converted to a mobile light anti-aircraft regiment of the Royal Artillery.
However, as the change in role was being finalised, infantry training continued. At the beginning of November, sea mines again brought drama. Two exploded on the beaches near the battalion’s base and several others had to be immobilised by the Royal Navy. On November 5, a 1,000lb German bomb hit Dorman and Long’s steelworks at Coatham, Redcar, but failed to explode. Three days later, D Company took part in exercises with the Home Guard between Halifax and Huddersfield, playing the role of invading German parachutists.