Memories of Times Past


(The reminiscences of Jim Deboo.)

[Jim Deboo joined Baker Perkins in January 1938 as an Apprentice in the Machine Shop and later became group training manager. He retired in 1986 and died in February 2013]

[Please note: Jim did not keep a day-by-day diary of events during the 48 years and 9 months when it was "my privilege to work for Baker Perkins". These notes seemed to flow effortlessly from his prodigious memory and we are indeed fortunate to have such a vivid record of a time when, arguably, Baker Perkins performed at its very best.]


My introduction to Learning a Trade

I left the King's School in July 1937 at the age of 15 years 10 months after London Matric because it would have been impossible for my parents to support me at King's for two more years.  I wanted to go into engineering but there was no vacancy at Baker Perkins at that time so I went to Newalls at Fletton.  School Cert Maths meant I could manage some geometry and trigonometry, so I was put to work on a Swiss jig borer in the tool room.  Some of the jigs and fixtures we made were for the manufacture of components for Spitfire engines with very precise limits and included formers for the thread grinding of screw threads for aircraft engines.  It was precise tool room work, which I enjoyed.

But I wanted general engineering, and as a result of an interview early in January 1938 with Mr Paul Baker (later Works Manager at Bedewell) I began my apprenticeship with Baker Perkins as an apprentice in the gear cutting section. 

On the morning of 18 January 1938 I reported to the Time Office at Westwood at 7.30.  One of the young lady timekeepers issued me with clock card no 429, showed me how to clock on and off (and warned me of the consequence of handling anyone else's card!).  I was taken then to meet my first foreman, Mr Walter Hardware, a small sprightly man with a waxed moustache (who asked me if I could handle proper and vulgar fractions) and then took me and handed me over to Mr George Westall, in charge of the bevel gear cutting section - and that was that.  By 7.45 I was standing by Gleason bevel gear cutting machine no 1020 watching a steel bevel pinion being generated and wondering what it was all about! 

George Westall had come to Westwood from the Willesden factory in London and was a distinguished figure.  With a hard white celluloid collar and black tie - a brown smock (no bib and brace overalls for him) - he was a man of precision.  Everything had to be just so: checking and double-checking the required gear trains, clocking the symmetry of the component on its mandrel, setting the cutters and getting rid of all swarf from the previous component.  It was a good way to start - with a craftsman who set a high standard by his own example.  I learned about pitch circle diameters, addenda and deddenda and how to generate an involute curve.  The Gleasons were modern and had their own electric motor drives, whereas the oldest machine in our section was already 50 years old - a belt-driven (from line shafting) bevel gear generator for very large gears.  Its main task was to machine the large cast iron crown wheels and the steel mating pinions for the huge chocolate melangeurs. 

I spent several months there on gear cutting and then Walter Hardware transferred me to the Sunderland gear cutters under a wonderful man named Dan Webber.  We had four Sunderland gear planers and could cut spur wheels, chain wheels (single, double and triple), single spiral gears in cast iron, steel, bronze and micarta, a synthetic material (used - so we were told - in machinery especially in hospitals where it ran "very quietly"!).  When cut, it smelt like fresh horse manure and made our throats tickle and eyes run!  Our pride and joy was machine no 903 - too big to stand in our section, so it was located at the top of the bay in the main gangway where it could be serviced by the two overhead cranes.  Dan often won the half crown award on Saturday mornings for the cleanest machine.  903 ran like a Rolls Royce and could cut gears up to 5 feet in diameter - gears for large laundry washing machines, huge chemical mixers and massively strong steel gears for rubber masticating machines.  We became a very good team and under Dan's guidance I would work out the required gear trains and set up the machine.  Then came the day when he trusted me to do the whole job and to start the cut!  Walter Hardware also gave me instructions on the mathematics of gear generation generally.  Several years later when I was on night shift in another part of the machine shop, an urgent EO (Express Order) had been overlooked on day shift and I was sent by the night shift foreman to cut this gear - I blessed the time of my training under Dan Webber and George Westall and also all I had learned from Jim Brebner, Len Bean and ‘Biff’ Cleverly!

As we moved through 1938 I was detailed off for additional duties.  In the main east/west gangway of the machine shop, facing 903, was a huge 5" diameter spindle Richards horizontal boring machine with an extra high column and back stay, manned day and night by two expert horizontal borer craftsmen, Baker and Bason.  It had been bought with its tall column to cope with the machining of the main base and supporting frame for the nitro-incorporators (nitros) used for mixing the ingredients for high explosives.  Some of the operations on those frames required two pairs of hands, so I now had the benefit of working with another skilled craftsman perhaps for up to two hours per shift on the boring machine, turning, facing, boring and using a 'mummet head'.

It was again time to move on and Walter Hardware handed me over one day to Matthew (Matt) Walton, foreman of the horizontal boring section.  I was to have my own machine, but my heart sank when I saw it - no 83, a 19th century belt-driven horizontal borer with three speeds and no traverses!  The man on the next machine, ‘Spriggy’ Law, showed me how to start and stop it and I was given my first job.  This was to set up and to machine flat the joint faces of the two halves of a large split cast iron chain wheel for a bread cooler.  Those around me took pity on me and helped, and gradually I was able to cope with a range of small jobs in cast iron and steel - some new jobs but often reboring (for bushing) other people's mistakes or blow holes in castings etc.

Wartime - Gearing Up to Meet the Needs of Our Forces - Open All Hours

The days were long - 7.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. with an hour for lunch.  But more was to come.  We had noticed the arrival of the chassis and trails of old 1914 war 6” Howitzer field guns - rotten wooden wheels, rusty metal tyres and no barrels!  These were being refurbished in the fitting shops, whilst in our horizontal boring bay a new Kearns 3" diameter spindle borer had arrived also with an extra high column.  Harry Popple and Tom Fowler were the two expert craftsmen who now had the task of machining heavy duty steel castings, the barrel mountings for 4.5" anti aircraft guns.

Some Unforgettable Characters

Then one day our foreman informed each of us that with immediate effect we would be working overtime each day shift and night shift until further notice.  This meant twelve hour shift work and just one hour lunch break on day shift and half an hour on night shift.  Those around me took it all in their stride.  I remember them all as they paired off - day/night shifts - Harding and Maynard, Mott and Rollings, Essom and Winsworth, Popple and Fowler, Butler and Cross, the Angel brothers, Allies and Nichols, Mathews and Meadows and the élite of the horizontal borers, Albert Watson (later to become the machine shop superintendent) and Vic Blake on their huge German floor borer bought by Josh Booth, the works manager, at a fair in Germany in the 1930s especially for the machining of large, heavy work such as huge mixers and main frames for chocolate refiners. 

Ray Pond, a good friend for many years later, joined me on a newer Dickinson horizontal borer and we set to work on components for the two- pounder anti tank guns.  Some of these were cast in duralumin, a lightweight metal but very difficult to machine in order to secure a good finish.  Ray and I quickly came to the view that we would lose the war not because of battlefield defeats but because of the unrealistic limits we were supposed to meet on some of the components under the CIA (Chief Inspector of Armaments) control.  If a spindle of 25mm diameter on a foot rest bracket for a two--pounder anti tank gun did not revolve sweetly in its three bearings, as for example a crankshaft in a car engine, it was scrapped.

Around me now war work was getting into its stride.  Reg (Tiddler) Hart, a turner craftsman of extraordinary skill, was machining the base plates for two-pounder anti tank guns.  He kept a labourer busy full time carting barrow-loads of swarf away!  Butler and Mathews were rough-machining the barrel bearings on the recuperator forgings for the 25-pounder field guns and everywhere there were mixer bodies, trough ends and blades for the nitros.  The trunnion band forging for the 25-pounder was a real problem.  It was a very bulky and obviously very strong forging which required endless hours of even rough machining in order to reach approximate dimensions and to lighten its weight.  I was moved to machine 1146, a large face-plate-only horizontal borer engaged on rough machining the trunnion bands and boring and facing the nitro trough ends.

One of the ratefixers and demonstrators on machining processes, Mr Emerson (known affectionately as Old Man Emerson, and father of Alan Emerson who became AEU convenor) worked with me to try to speed up the removal of the vast amount of excess steel on the 25-pounder trunnion bands.  We reached the machine limit, broke the supporting clamps and stops and pushed the heavy forging off the machine table and almost onto the work bench of Frank Goslow, the machine shop beltman!

Frank, the Machine Shop Beltman

With so much of the machine shop operated by line shafting (each line driven by one 50hp electric motor through a 9" wide x 5/8" thick leather belt), it was vital to have a competent beltman on hand to deal with breakages.  When a main drive belt broke, it sounded like a gun firing and then silence followed, as a whole row of machine tools came to a halt.  This was both expensive in lost machining time and also dangerous because loss of power to a machine tool under load whilst cutting (e.g. turning a huge mixer blade, cutting a square thread on a lathe, milling a flat surface or cutting a gear) meant that the cutting tool could break or remain jammed in the work piece.

Frank knew his way through belt driven machinery problems and inspected the big driving belts regularly in order to anticipate weaknesses and to change belts accordingly.  He was typical of the utterly reliable men who manned the machine shop.  I worked night shift frequently and I well remember Frank - a huge man with a beard - coming into the machine shop at 6.30 on a winter's morning carrying a paraffin hurricane lamp and leaving his pony and trap in the covered cycle shed!  Like the steam engine drivers of years gone by who would arrive at the engine sheds an hour early in order to oil and check over their own engine, so Frank came to inspect his belts.  Shutting down a line of shafting with ample warning for the craftsmen of an impending belt change was much safer than coping with a broken belt!

By the end of 1939, as we moved into 1940, it seemed that the machine shop and increasingly the fitting shops were engaged on armament work.  Two-pounder anti tank guns, which had proved no match for German tanks, were followed by the prototype six--pounder anti tank gun.  I remember my transfer to machine no 1465, a new very accurate 3" spindle Kearns horizontal boring machine with built-in verniers to vertical and cross slides, and turning, boring and screw cutting facilities.  Ben Bulter and I kept it like a new pin!  New jobs came with great regularity.  On one occasion we worked all one Saturday, Saturday night, Sunday and Sunday night machining the prototype trunnion band and recuperator slide carrier for the new six-pounder anti tank gun.  We machined phosphor-bronze castings for gear boxes for the twin six-pounder gun, recuperator main bearing and barrel groovings for the 25-pounder field gun, main frame mountings and bearings for the 5.5 Howitzer and 40mm Bofors anti aircraft gun and its transmission gear box.  Tooling up for this vast increase in new work was a major task for management.  I can do no better but to quote directly from the illustrated record entitled Wartime at Baker Perkins Ltd:

“For the execution of some of the Government contracts entrusted to us we were by now well organised and equipped; for others new machine tools were a hectic need and we joined in the scramble to get them.  The importance of those contracts ensured that we had all the support Authority could lend – but we could not have that which did not exist; six – twelve – eighteen and even more months for delivery were quoted and the shortest of these periods was far too long; we did not want these machines tomorrow – we needed them now, so why not try making them ourselves?”

Shortage of Machine Tools - The Royal Navy to the Rescue

There were some very interesting stories about machine tool acquisitions, adaptations and DIY, literally "make them yourself".  I referred earlier to the vast amount of high quality steel which had to be machined away on some components.  A heavy duty plano mill would have been very useful and then suddenly one appeared!  A huge four head Ingersoll plano mill.  The story was that at about the time of the fall of France a ship sailing from the USA to France was intercepted by the Royal Navy and among its cargo was the Ingersoll plano mill which came to Westwood!  Milling machines too were in short supply and on long term delivery from Alfred Herbert et al.  So, using patterns and core boxes borrowed from Alfred Herbert, we cast them in our own foundry, machined them and built them ourselves.  The special boring lathes for piercing the recuperator forgings and then boring out the three main holes for the hydraulic recoil system and for machining the internal spiral splines in the bores were just not available.  And so we made them, beds were cast in the foundry, machined on plano mills and planers, deep drilling systems were built with swarf removal and high pressure oil recirculating plants.  Charles (known as Russell) Bullard, later to become a foreman instructor in the apprentice school, was brought in from the tool room to run this new operation.  We all felt very relieved when the first three holes over 36" long in the heavy steel recuperator forging were drilled and came out parallel to each other!  The shops hummed with activity and the collaboration between sections and departments was excellent.

Unsung Heroes - Slingers and Cranedrivers

The slingers (the men responsible for providing and supervising the lifting tackle on heavy and bulky jobs) seemed to anticipate the craftsmen's needs and the importance and urgency of the flow of work.  Crane drivers too, some of them women, were very reliable and accurate in their handling of overhead cranes and big loads.

Bert Boughton in the main east/west bay of the machine shop (covering heavy jigs store, marking out tables, grinders, radial drills, 903 Sunderland gear planer and heavy duty horizontal boring machines) was an expert crane driver.  His touch was exquisite, and a trick to demonstrate this would be to put a piece of chewing gum onto the bottom of a massive crane hook, lower it on to a marking out table and pick up a silver threepenny bit!

These men - belt men, crane drivers, slingers, tool stores keepers, shop labourers - all played their part in keeping the skilled men at full stretch, for it seemed to us that as we produced more, so more and more was required.  This led to some outstanding examples of innovation.

Skill + Imagination = Innovation

Two of these (there were many others) come to mind.  The screwing of each end of each of the three long bores on the 25-pounder and the 5.5 Howitzer recuperators was a vital operation at the end of many hours of previous machining on each recuperator.  On the 25-pounder a technique was devised involving a revolving mandrel on which an external thread (the same pitch as the required internal thread) was machined.  This was really a boring bar, able to move longitudinally in line with its central axis.  On a cross-slide a half bearing machined with a partly cut away thread of the same pitch was brought forward to connect with the revolving mandrel which, engaging with the fixed cross-slide, travelled forward at the correct pitch per revolution and thus through the correctly angled screw cutting tool would then generate the internal thread.  This whole operation was performed on a very old belt driven horizontal boring machine by semi skilled operators, thus freeing craftsmen and other expensive machine tool capacity for more important work.

A further innovation was one which both speeded up and simplified the machining of the upper base plate of the chassis of the mobile 40mm Bofors anti aircraft gun to enable the barrel assembly to revolve on its turntable.   The whole chassis assembly would have occupied many hours of expensive horizontal boring machine time to set up and face the circular base plate, but a large radial drilling machine was adapted with a spindle going through bronze bushes attached to a cast iron block bolted to the base table of the radial drill.  Then attached to the drilling spindle was a device with a star wheel trigger to feed the revolving tool head forward at each revolution of the spindle.

A similar innovation with special cutters, milling heads, boring bars and fixture adaptations on a 6’ high 4’ wide cast iron angle plate enabled me to do all the machining required in one setting on the main trail assembly for the 25 -pounder field gun on my large Richards 5” spindle horizontal boring machine.

Some of the jigs and fixtures required for the production of heavy gun parts in the machine shop were too large for the tool room to machine on their small Newall jig borers.  These presented us with special problems, but the work was very interesting and required us to operate to very precise tool room limits.

Two other incidents stand out as illustrations of just the sort of problems which we had to overcome.

Panic in the Power House

One Saturday evening when, after a long week of night shift, I was in bed, a near neighbour, Jock Roxborough, called to tell me that my foreman, Matt Walton, wanted me to return to the machine shop as soon as possible.  When I arrived, I learned that there was a major problem in the power house.  In the war years there were two large stationary diesel engines in the power house; the largest, a 500hp Sulzer with a 9' diameter flywheel, had "blown a cylinder head".  This engine provided the motive force for a direct current generator for part of the factory site and there was no way we could secure a replacement head.  Armed with verniers, micrometers, callipers, rulers and sketch pad, we climbed on to the top of the engine and measured everything we could, both before and after lifting the head off with the overhead crane.  The foundry then got busy and three days later a very large round piece of heavy duty cast iron like a huge lorry wheel came up to be machined.  This was a delicate job, relying upon the sketches made and measuring again the old head but allowing for wear, and knowing there was no room for error.  Twenty four hours later we held our breath as, slung on three eye bolts, it was lowered on to the top of the engine, fitted, bolted down and run!

Keeping the Tea (and the trains) Running

Referring to the old power house reminds me of an amusing incident involving the power house and the old Midland and Great Northern railway line just outside.  At the onset of war security on the Westwood site was tightened and this included a wire fence alongside our east-facing perimeter, i.e. between us and the railway.  There was a minor problem.  An M&GN signal box backed right up to our own works railway line outside our power house.  For as many years as people could remember, signalmen had been able to brew their tea using hot water from our power house.  The problem was solved by the construction of a small gate and a key to lock and unlock it!

Another weekend exercise, this time a Sunday night, involved machining the prototype 5.5 Howitzer trail assembly, marking out, drilling and tapping, drilling and countersinking for rivets, milling and facing.  Because it was Sunday night and there were only a few of us working and because the drawings of this assembly were so large, we had spread them out on the floor of the machine shop.  Unaware we had a visitor, Matt Walton and I and our crane driver were working away when a loud voice demanded to know if we thought this expensive armament drawing was a door mat!  The great Mr Josh Booth, the works manager himself, had come to observe progress.  We found somewhere else to hang up the drawing and carried on.  Two days later, when the prototype was assembled satisfactorily, Mr Booth sent me a message - my hourly rate had been increased by 2d!

Our Efforts Bear Fruit

Other colleagues will, I know, have similar stories to tell of personal efforts, innovation, long hours and the constant pressure to improve performance and output.  Those reading these notes and having their own copy of ”Wartime at Baker Perkins” will have their own special memories of those days.  In my view it was a direct reflection of the high levels of craft and technical skills of the Westwood engineers that we were able to move so rapidly and so effectively into full-scale armament production on so wide a range of components, assemblies and complete artillery pieces.  This applied throughout the entire factory - foundry, fabrication shops, machine shops and fitting and erection shops.  For example, the fabrication and welding of main frame parts of the 5.5 Howitzer, the famous “fabricated” recuperators for the 25 -pounder field gun (the “redesigned” 25 -pounder made so that it could be parachuted to our troops in Burma, and assembled on the ground like a meccano set), the fabrication and welding of the main chassis and frame for the 40mm Bofors gun illustrate the skills demonstrated.  In terms of precision too the manufacture and assembly of the twin six -pounder (designed primarily for coastal defence against E boats - many of the parts cast in naval bronze) was in itself a major exercise and success.  I have vivid memories of Ted Church on the largest vertical boring machine and Stan Whyte on a similar vertical borer, machining the large steel base castings; and then the foreman, Dickie Bird, wrestling with a piece of special purpose equipment for flame hardening the slightly inclined steel track (later to be ground by Stan Whyte) upon which the roller system rotated to enable the whole gun to traverse quickly and smoothly.

In this hive of activity the key components were the people:

  • The men and women who manned the machines day and night shift, who fabricated and welded the parts, who built the guns, and whose lives were dedicated to supporting our troops in the field by giving them the high quality equipment which they needed.  The main drive motor for a machine tool would be started up at 7.30 a.m. on Monday morning and, running day and night, would not shut down until 4 p.m. on Saturday, resume on Sunday, and start up again on Monday.
  • Millwrights and maintenance electricians played a vital part in keeping the plant in operation, together with roving inspectors and tool room staff who had to respond immediately when problems occurred.
  • A special reference must be made to the women who adjusted so quickly and efficiently to exacting work and long hours when compared with the shop and office work, nursing and dentistry from which they came.  Their contribution was vital.

I hope colleagues will forgive me if I omit to mention some special case known only to them, but among the 'characters' I recall were:
Bill Henson, a slinger; Bert Boughton, a crane driver; Len Sargeant, electrical foreman; Old Man Pidcock, plate shop foreman (who designed, built and rode - throughout the war years - his own electric motorcycle); Bert Hodges, Bert Kirby, Mark Pywell, Len Powers, Stan Cole (fitting shops); Jack Clark (foundry); Walter Hardware, Tommy Dougal, Matt Fowler, Frank Angel and George Strickson (machine shop); Arthur Spink (cutter shop); Albert Jones, affectionately known as the creaking gate (tool room); and Bill Paskins (night shift).  Bumper Hillson (tool room charge hand) was a tower of strength.  These and many others at foreman and shop manager level were a fine team.

Others who spring to mind within my own circle included Alf Mott and Frank Rollings; George Harding and Tommy Maywood; Essom and Winsworth; Popple and Fowler; Nichols and Allies; Bason and Baker - all horizontal borers;
Millers: Pollhill and Woodward (on the largest no 48 Herbert mill); Percy Crompton, Alf Bellairs, Len Ireland and so on;
Turners and grinders: Twiggy Bachelor, Hector Hayward, Stan Whyte, Ted Church, Reg Hart;
and slotters, broachers, sensitive drillers and radial drillers and the whole team on recuperator machining including the planers and plano millers.  I remember in particular Alf Chambers on a large radial drill, who spent hundreds of hours in the early part of the war drilling huge diameter holes in expensive heavy duty steel forgings in order to reduce weight!

Some Impromptu Surgery - Coping with Tragedy

Speaking of drilling reminds me of a small incident involving a high speed sensitive pillar drill and 'Wag' Marchant, a driller and also an expert St John Ambulance Brigade first aid man.  Early one evening on night shift I had been sent to mark out some castings on the marking out tables.  All who have done this will know that centre lines and other important data lines when scribed on to the whitewashed surface of the casting or fabrication must then be reinforced by centre pops, i.e. dots struck on to the lines by hitting a sharp pointed piece of hardened steel (like the stub of a pencil) with a hammer.  In awkward places this could be difficult.  I missed the centre pop and instead hit my thumb.  Almost immediately the thumb nail darkened; blood underneath could not escape and would eventually cause intense pain.  Wag Marchant knew what to do.  He put a 1/32" diameter twist drill into the chuck of his drilling machine, having first dipped the end of the drill into Dettol, placed my thumb on the machining table, held my wrist firm and at top speed (over 1,000 rpm) drilled into the nail.  Two or three seconds was all that was needed.  I felt a sharp prick as the drill went through the nail into flesh underneath, the drill was withdrawn, blood spurted out and the job was done!

We Too Had Our Casualties

The services of men like Wag Marchant were needed from time to time on more serious incidents.  An operator with loose overall clothing was caught up by the high speed revolving bar feed on a capstan lathe and was killed.  Another man was killed when an overhead crane hook broke loose from its wire ropes when the cut-out failed and the whole crane hook crashed onto his head.  A fitter died when, under high hydraulic pressure, the piston on an oil filled recuperator burst its locking collar and pierced his chest.  Another man, because of some domestic problem, threw himself from the top of our 80' high water tower outside the power house.  One incident which thankfully did not end in tragedy occurred when a soldier on leave came into the factory at night armed with his rifle looking for someone who had been pursuing his wife!  There were of course the usual cuts and bruises and we all had great respect for Sister Moules, in charge of our works surgery, and who "kept us going".

Dining in Style

During the early part of the war years there was no canteen for the night shift and we therefore brought our own food and thermos flasks or billycans.  In the machine shop heating up food did not present a problem because at that time the heat treatment department was located at the east side of the machine shop, backing on to the railway siding.  Heat treatment furnaces, in use during day shift, would take all night to cool down.  If we could avoid the eyes of Bill Paskins, the night shift foreman, then a small shepherd's pie or cheese on toast could be cooked in 1-2 minutes in the still very hot chamber of a heat treatment oven

I remember on one occasion near Christmas when someone put a small chicken into a heat treatment oven to roast it.  Unfortunately we think this was seen by Bill, who decided to do sentry duty outside the heat treatment department.  Fifteen minutes or so later, when he left and the bird was removed, it was about the size of a pigeon and was hard and black like a piece of coal!

Later, when canteen facilities were introduced, it was good to be able to eat a proper meal from 2.30-3 a.m. during a night shift of 8 p.m. to 7.30 a.m.  But still many people preferred to bring their own food and to eat it whilst playing cards.  This reminds me of something which happened fairly early during the war.  When we came in at 8 p.m. on Thursday evenings, we received our weekly pay envelopes.  A few men got into the habit of playing cards for money and would lose most or all of their pay!  A deputation of wives complaining about this resulted in pay packets being issued on Friday morning at the end of night shift! 

Feeding us was not difficult, in spite of rationing, but feeding the troops in the field was another matter.  We made hundreds of complete mobile bakeries and I have particular memories of Les Elderkin, a good friend throughout the war years, who spent many hours machining components for those mobile bakeries!

Occasionally parts for a Baker Perkins food machine would appear - a gear box for a cake mixer, side frames for a biscuit cutting machine, a huge steel base casting for a hydraulic liquor mill press for chocolate manufacture, etc.  All this made us realise that we and the armed forces still had to be fed!  But our main effort continued on armaments and, as D Day approached, the production intensified including some huge 17/25 -pounder armour plated guns for mounting on tank landing craft to enable them to defend themselves.  The totally enclosed armour shield around the gun was 2.5" thick and required special welding techniques.

Serving in the Home Guard

Some of us had tried on several occasions to join the regular forces but, because of the nature of the work upon which we were engaged, we were made to return to Westwood under a protected occupation scheme.  But our chance came when early in 1942 we were drafted into the Home Guard.  Now many present-day television viewers will, quite rightly, enjoy a good laugh when watching episodes of Dad's Army, but our Home Guard experiences were entirely different.  Most Westwood men saw service in the Home Guard 101st Z Battery of the Royal Artillery.  A regular army (RA) major and other officers and NCOs took up residence in fabricated army huts on what is now the Fulbridge Road playing fields.  During the very limited time we were not at work and especially on Saturday and Sunday nights (for those of us on night shift) we were drilled by an ex Black Watch regular sergeant named Munro and then, divided into reliefs and companies, we were trained to operate and fire the twin rail rocket projectors.  Sixty four of these were sited on the playing fields and, with two rockets to each projector, 128 rockets could be fired simultaneously if required.  This would mean that any aircraft caught in say a volume of space about one mile in each direction would be brought down!

Weekend camps by special train were also spent at Heacham and Snettisham facing the Wash - the bases of some of our buildings and miniature railway lines can still be seen there.  We practised our drills (two men to each projector) and fired at a drogue towed on a very very long line by a Westland Lysander aircraft over the sea.  We had practised all one Sunday morning and had just been “stood down” when a Heinkel appeared from a cloud, dropped some bombs on the seashore and on our site and disappeared before even our Lewis guns mounted on top of the public toilets could open fire!  I was privileged first to be an NCO and then to be commissioned and had a fine group of machine shop colleagues in my troop.  The rockets themselves, about 5' long by 3" diameter, were fired electrically through any two of four contacts each at 90o when located on the firing rails.  If there was a misfire, we had to unload the missile and place it in a sand filled bunker.  It was never a happy time when a misfire occurred! 

We learned infantry skills, including the use of the Sten gun and there was an incident about which now one can laugh but which at the time was deadly serious.  On the beach at Heacham some white marks were painted on large stones and placed about 25 yards away from us.  The Sten gun had a magazine containing 32 bullets and could be fired using R button for single repeat shots or A button for automatic continuous fire.  At short range, we were told, a Sten fired on automatic would "cut a man in half".  In my troop I had a very likeable but somewhat simple-minded man, a labourer from the machine shop, affectionately known by everyone as "Wee Wee".  When it came to his turn to fire the Sten gun, I loaded for him, explained the two buttons, took his arm, pointed the gun at his marker stone and moved away.  He was to fire single shots - the R button.  Instead he pressed A and, being alarmed at the gun firing off continuously, he swung round towards us saying "I can't stop it!"  We hit the dirt as one man and somehow I managed to point his Sten into the air and out to sea.  Oh, the joys of Z Battery Home Guard!

Looking Back

Looking back over the years 1938-45 - so full of memories - it is difficult to pick out what some may regard as highlights.  We knew at the outset and then after Dunkirk how desperately short Great Britain was of up-to-date armaments, and so the motivation was keen and the effort, I believe, by all and sundry was wonderful.  It was a great time to learn by doing and by experience.  Innovation was encouraged and - in contrast to an incident early on in 1939 when I was fined 1/- by my AEU branch for machining five cast iron plummer blocks simultaneously instead of one at a time (making 300% bonus instead of 50% which was usual) - anything we could do to increase production was welcomed. 

It might have seemed to some that the war was remote, but small things - and some not so small - kept our motivation high.  I remember fetching some job cards from the machine shop office and being given these by one of the section controllers who was in tears but carrying on with his work; his son had been killed in a Spitfire.  One of the fitters attending to a rectification on a 25 -pounder main trail and chassis on my horizontal borer had just lost his son in the Fleet Air Arm.  One of the women crane drivers seemed not to be aware of what was going on around her; her husband was missing at sea.  And so it went on.  Bits of railway line came through the general stores roof and into the auxiliary machine shop from bombs dropped on New England railway sheds; the awful glow in the western sky when Coventry was blitzed; and the determination of the night shift not to spend hours in the air raid shelters during air raid warnings but to continue to work through.  I recall too on 11 November 1938 and 1939 the whole of the workforce keeping the two minutes silence - all machine tools shut down - not a movement anywhere, except for Albert Allies, a crane driver, but also the conductor of the Salvation Army band, standing on the steps leading from the machine shop into the works office and playing “the last post” on his silver cornet. 

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