Joining Up

Photograph of “B” (Horncastle) Company 4th Battalion Royal Lincolnshire Regiment. Taken at Douglas on the Isle of Man in 1939.

Robert Hay Bell’s Memoir of an Infantry Auctioneer has been published by Robert Bell & Co, and you can read the whole book here.

He records how having seen the threat of war mounting on the newsreels at Horncastle’s Victory Cinema, he and his friends decided to enlist. They joined the town’s territorial unit, ‘B’ (Horncastle) Company of 4th Battalion the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment who were based at the Drill Hall (now Stanhope Hall) on Boston Road.

“By the spring of 1939 it was obvious we were on the brink and I went one night with Gordon Spratt and signed up in the local Territorials for four years or the duration. I was 21.

Tony [Hay Bell his younger brother aged 19], Charlie Spratt, John Gaunt, Jack Wynn and Jack Reay from Lloyds Bank and Harry Hudson joined a week or two later and we were formed into one section. It was 1939 and the clouds of war came all too soon. The Territorial Army was expanding fast. One had to do something.

Captain H R Tweed in 1940

Eight of us were companions in arms in what quickly became a rifle company of some 90 local men, commanded by Lt. Reg Tweed, the local solicitor who had nursed the platoon along since 1918 or so. The corporals soon became sergeants and Sgt. Gussing became the Sgt. Major with a crown on his lower sleeve. There was great enthusiasm, all of us being volunteers.”

Of course just as Robert and his friends joined the local territorial unit, so other young men joined the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Horncastle’s Roll of Honour includes men who served in roles as diverse as signaller, submariners and pilot.

Training

For those early volunteers their first soldiering was a training exercise on the Isle of Man. 

Robert Hay Bell recalled:

“We disembarked and were marched three miles to Bilbao Camp and lived in bell tents, eight to a tent. It was on a hillside and my place was downhill so I slept (first night) with my head uphill – against 14 feet!

We had a brigade which is about 3000 men and when we were all formed up with our uniforms and bayonets, the Adjutant came forward on horseback and shouted words of command. I distinctly remember a feeling of euphoria, seeing such potential power in a great body of men. It must be something like the bees feel when they swarm.

There was plenty of marching, drilling, inspection of kit, arms, barracks and bodies. I found I had to concentrate hard to get by.

When not on guard duty, we often drifted to the Oswald, the liveliest pub in town [Douglas] and there was great merriment. To the tune of Roll out the Barrel and Run Rabbit Run or Down Mexico Way, soldiers drank and sang and chatted to the girls.”

“B” (Horncastle) Company marching down Scunthorpe High Street returning from dinner to their billet in 1939

After this it was back to normality at home as political tensions continued to mount. On the 1st September 1939, as the men of the Polish garrison on the Westerplatte bravely resisted the massive German bombardment, Tony Bell was stacking corn stooks at High Toynton:

“I was in a field on the left hand side of the main Spilsby road, halfway up Dunham’s hill, when a car pulled up at the gate. A man jumped out and shouted across the field at me “Come at once, we have been called up”. That night we moved to Scunthorpe where we were billeted in the Palais de Dance. War was declared two days later on September 3.”

At Scunthorpe there was more training, and the company helped with war preparations, including filling hundreds of sandbags to protect Scunthorpe’s War Memorial Hospital. Then the Company was moved to Ripon where they began training for active service overseas.

Men of “B” (Horncastle) Company filling sandbags for Scunthorpe War Memorial Hospital

After Christmas Captain Tweed put forward Robert Bell for the Officer Cadet Training Unit, and he was despatched for a four month crash course at Farnborough, separating the two brothers who would have very different wars. He remembered his training:

“The tuition was first class. We were so very keen and this new life opened up completely fresh horizons… It was great. We ate awful porridge for breakfast and were thrilled by Vera Lynn singing “Oh Johnnie – How you can love”. We wore coloured bands in our hats, signifying Officer Cadet, and felt good and courageous when we saw the young life of Aldershot! We had our lectures, did night ops across the Basingstoke Canal (I even swam/waded it naked).

HM King George VI inspecting officer cadets at Aldershot in 1940. Robert Bell was in attendance and could be in the crowd

As Officer Cadets, we were expected to turn out just a little bit smarter than in the ranks, and to this end were drilled by special staff sergeants from the smarter Regular Regiments. From time to time we were chosen in turn to take their place. We were taught to bawl commands at our friends from a great distance, to double, crawl, swim, jump and to study tactics, theory of warfare, military history, jurisdiction, call of troops, health and hygiene etc.

Roll of “B” (Horncastle) Company 4th Battalion Royal Lincolnshire Regiment as mobilised on 1st September 1939.

Experienced officers did their best to give us some idea of what to expect. Hints were given on how to get the best out of your men, especially about seeing them fed before yourself.”

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