Soldiers in Town

1st/7th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment in cheerful mood after the finishing a cross country run during training at Horncastle. From the Imperial War Museum.

Although today you would struggle to find any trace of it, hundreds of soldiers were stationed in and around Horncastle during the war. In April 1940 Shirley Bell recorded in her Diary that:

“Horncastle swarms with soldiers like a city of siege.”

On the 2nd March she evocatively recorded the worries of Horncastle people about their imminent arrival:

“Business as usual today!” It is [Horncastle] little effected by the war, and there are very few things to remind one that there is any action. Save for a few odd soldiers we are as sleepy as ever. True it is that next week eight hundred [Tower] Hamlet Rifles are expected to descend upon us, but we await there arrival with calm, putting our trust in the Police Force. That gallant body consists of 6 Regulars and 24 Reserved! All of these are being called out for the occasion, it is rumoured.

Since these anticipated members of H.M. Forces are said to come from the East End, and number among them Chinamen, Lascars, etc. etc. the calm, honourable people of Horncastle are slightly dubious, but continue to believe that a man is innocent until he be proved guilty.

She later scribbled in the margin “The said Hamlet Rifles are at present stationed at Market Rasen where they have built up a bad reputation!”

A few months later and following the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, Horncastle and the surrounding villages again thronged with soldiers.

Lesley Dixon writing in 2004 recalled that:

“On June 21st the Army arrived and seemed everywhere around Horncastle; masses of people had army personnel billeted on them.”

Her family owned Holbeck Manor, which they quickly found was to receive 300 soldiers camped on the grounds, and eight officers including a medical officer and padre who would be taking over rooms at their house and estate cottages.

It wasn’t all bad though as she remembered:

“During that time I had a very lively life. I would go into one or two of the officers’ mess for drinks and went out, often into Horncastle where entertainments including dances at the Drill Hall had been organised for the troops… Some events do stick in my mind – once I went on a ‘carrier’ which was a small tank, on an exercise wearing an army greatcoat and beret. A general was staying at Holbeck to review the troops on an exercise which saw the carrier rearing up and over hedges!”

Like a number of local women, Lesley later married one of the servicemen stationed here. In 1942 here marriage to Captain Norman Ashton Hill of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was reported in the local press:

“the bride wore a blush pink water silk frock, with head-dress to tone, and a string of pearls and pearl ear-rings. Here bouquet was of pink carnations and white heather.” Whilst her “travelling attire for the honeymoon was a navy blue suit, with navy hat and navy handbag.”

Another military wife was Gertrude Greenfield, a member of the telephone staff at Horncastle Post Office, she married Leutenant William Hallam also of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and was given away by the Postmaster at St Mary’s Church in February 1944.

The Royal Warwicks were stationed in Horncastle for several years. Their role was as a training battalion, where new recruits practiced the skills needed for warfare before joining another unit and being deployed overseas.

1st 7th Battalion, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment, digging in with entrenching tools during training at Horncastle, 15 April 1942. From the Imperial War Museum

The camp was in and around the town, with Nissen huts off Prospect Street where the playground and bungalows are now. Officers were also billeted in houses around the town. The island where Tesco is located today was also used for training and assault courses with rope bridges across. On the other side of the River Bain the brick pits at Bells Yard were used, with soldiers wading through them in in full kit. Percy Bowpitt recalled his experience writing in 2004:

“Training here consisted of forced marches, assault courses, night exercises all overseen by a Major Watson. He was commonly known as the Mad Major; he accompanied every training session to ensure that no one skived off. On one night assault course in pouring rain having slid off the swing rope into the river he ordered me to go back and do it again with the same result. My steel helmet had fallen off at my feet, bending down to retrieve it I deposited the contents of my back pack, which had filled with water, all down the Majors trousers who happened to be standing immediately in front of me. He was not best pleased.”

The Imperial War Museum recorded memories of several former soldier who completed their training in Horncastle.

Ronald Elliott recalls his training and a challenging exercise in the Yorkshire Moors.

Part of an oral history recording from the Imperial War Museum. Listen to Ronald Elliott’s story in full here.

Dennis Keen shared his memories of time in Horncastle, signals training in Skegness, and a trip to Hull to practice street fighting in the bombed out ruins.

Part of an oral history recording from the Imperial War Museum. Listen to Dennis Keen’s story in full here.

Percy Bowpitt also enjoyed this part of the course:

“Street fighting was an integral part of the course and took place in Hull that had been extensively destroyed by the German air force. Great fun was to be had here because most of the time it was like playing Cowboys and Indians, with blank ammunition being fired all over the place, great fireworks known as Thunder flashes taking the roll of hand grenades. On one occasion my section, skiving behind the walls of a burnt out building having a quick smoke, were abruptly disturbed by a thunder flash dropped over the wall by the platoon sergeant. Apart from there being no injuries it was quite realistic, we shot out of the there like startled rabbits.”

He also shared his final memories of Horncastle:

“Departure from the Battle School took place in trucks that were to take us to the railway station. Our Mad Major was there to see us off. As each truck drove off torrents of abuse were hurled at him, as it was the last we would see of him, or so we thought. Arriving at the station to our dismay, there he was standing on the platform with a huge grin on his face. He addressed us by saying that although we all hated him we would be grateful for the training we had received when the going got rough, wishing us well he marched out of the station and left us a little subdued.”

Horncastle Railway Station before the war with its canopy over roof, looking north towards West Street.

Another young recruit stationed at Horncastle was Joseph Ratcliffe from Lancashire. In March 1942 he met a Mablethorpe girl named Margaret Smith at a Saturday night dance at the Drill Hall (now Stanhope Hall). His daughter recalled in 2006 that had been love at first sight, and he’d cycle the 26 miles across the Wolds to see her as often as possible. By October that year they were married at the Catholic church in Mablethorpe, and just 6 months later in April 1943 his training was complete and he was dispatched overseas by ship, destination unknown.

His letter home to Margaret records his feelings:

“My darling wife, I have 44 hours sailing to my credit but I am not proud as I make a very, very poor sailor. Last night I would have given anything in the world to have been able to plant my two feet firmly on good old England. I never knew seasickness could be so bad, you just want to stop the boat but instead it keeps on rolling, piling the agony on, but, there are hundreds worse than me. Today, for instance, I am feeling quite on my feet again, thank goodness.

Just to explain more fully, I lay in my hammock this morning and looked out through the porthole and saw sea, the next moment sky, then a pause in mid-air, then sea again. I can assure you I clung to the sides after my previous encounter with hammock. Life on a ship is pretty dull, there isn’t a drop of intoxicating liquor on board. The only beverages are mineral waters, and ginger wine for Officers only. We get 50 cigarettes a week for 1s.8d, Players or Goldflake, Woodbines are 3d for 10. I’ve already smoked my ration but I expect to get next week’s soon.

Last week, at this time, my darling, I was with you as happy as anyone could possibly be, but today, I am very depressed indeed, each roll takes me further away from you. It is now third day of sailing, (64 hours) and perhaps I will make a sailor after all, as I am feeling more or less myself again. Sea quite calm today.

As soon as we disembark I will, if possible, send an Airgraph. Life at sea is the same everyday, water, water, and more water, no change of scenery. Of course, we have several means of idling time away, there is a library, card-playing, draughts, dominoes, darts, and we have a wireless to each Mess deck where we eat/sleep.

One week since leaving Horncastle , still sailing Mid-Atlantic, wonder where I’ll be next week?”

In May he disembarked in Algiers in North Africa, ready take part in the invasion of Sicily. 

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting especially bit about Lesley Dixon who I knew when I lived in Greetham. She was a spirited old lady and used to tell me about her days when the soldiers were billeted at her house, Holbeck Manor. She probably loved it and, as mentioned above, married a Norman Ashton-Hill who was stationed there. I now know his son, David Ashton-Hill who lives in Greetham.


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