Battle school in Britain

Universal carrier of 52nd Reconnaissance Regiment moving at speed over rough ground, Scotland, 10 November 1942.

Men of the 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment wade ashore from landing craft during combined operations training in Scotland, 17 November 1942.

American-built Alligator amphibious transporters on trials at Inverary in Scotland, 20 November 1942.

The journalist Alan Moorehead who had been covering the Desert campaign found himself back in England in November 1942, a brief stay before his next overseas trip. He occupied himself by visiting Army training establishments up and down the country. It seems he was genuinely impressed by what he saw, his account was not written for propaganda purposes:

Another day I joined a battle school. The idea of the battle school was General Alexander’s. After their normal training, as many N.C.O.‘s and officers as possible went off on three weeks’ special training which duplicates war as nearly as possible. On this wet moming the men made 2 landing before dawn. With smoke bombs and hand grenades falling around them, they rushed the beach.

Then they fought their way inland across streams and through hedgerows and farmyards. I can hardly say I enjoyed that day. Once I went down to my thighs in icy mud. Once I was covered with muck from a nearby grenade-burst. When the troops wanted to go through a ten-foot hawthorn hedge they did not hunt for gaps, they walked straight through the thorns.

All day until dusk they were at it without food, without rest. They ran and shot and climbed walls with their full equipment until they were tired into speechlessness. At the end of each stage they were called together, told what they had done wrong and then two new students were ordered to lead the next assault.

They would simply be given a reference on the map, told roughly what resistance was there and ordered to take the place. Crawling on their bellies, they reconnoitred the fannhouses and the bams. Dropping into ditches and swanning over brick walls, they went in for the mopping-up.

Normally there is something phoney, amateurish and childish about army field exercises, a sort of boy scoutery that sits oddly upon grown men. But not here. This was tough and uncomfortable and extraordinarily real. It was a tremendous advance since the days of the crushing boredom of route marches and parade-ground drill.

The enthusiasm was the surprising thing. By some chemistry these youths had been taken from the suburban milk rounds and the city shops and made physically bigger and mentally much more alert. They clutched at any information.

I once casually said something about the dispersal of vehicles on convoy. A colonel at once shoved me into an aircraft and, piloting the thing himself, swept me back and forth over his battalion for half an hour to have my opinion on whether they were correctly spaced apart or not. Feeling giddy and far from expert, I shouted that it was first-class, but he continued tree-hopping for another ten minutes before he was satisfied.

Clearly these troops were fit for the conquest of Africa and the invasion of Europe.

See Alan Moorehead Desert War Trilogy: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43

A section of infantry charging with fixed bayonets at the Western Command weapon training school at Altcar in Lancashire, 13 November 1942.

Troops destined for the Middle East negotiate an obstacle during desert training at Altcar in Lancashire, 13 November 1942.

Winston Churchill inspects the new Lee-Enfield No. 4 rifle with spike bayonet during a visit to 53rd Division in Kent, 20 November 1942.

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