FIRST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION FROM MOBILISATION & NEWBURY 1939-1940
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY VOL1 1939-1940
THE last week in August saw the 1st Bucks Battalion just returned from its annual camp at Lavant, near Chichester. Key parties, including most of Battalion headquarters and about ten all ranks from each company, were called up on the 24th August. soon after their return from Lavant. A few days later the call came for general mobilisation and all over the county officers and men reported to their local drill halls.
When the Territorial Army was doubled in April. 1939, the original Bucks Battalion was formed into two battalions, the 1st and 2nd Bucks with headquarters at Aylesbury and Slough respectively. The original Battalion had companies at Aylesbury, High Wycombe, Slough and Marlow, with detachments at Wolverton, Chesham, Princes Risborough and Woburn. When the duplication was completed the 1st Battalion covered the northern area of the county, with companies at Aylesbury, Wycombe, Wolverton and Risborough.
About half the Battalion had less than six months’ service. This proportion applied equally to officers and other ranks. Recruits had received a limited amount of instruction in the rifle, some elementary fieldcraft training and little else.
In August 1939, every man in the Battalion possessed a rifle; the rest of the equipment, or the lack of it, was a quartermaster’s nightmare. Each company had a Bren and anti-tank rifle; the mortar platoon had a mortar, the carrier platoon a carrier and the transport consisted of four l5-cwt. trucks.
Until the 17th September companies concentrated in their local areas after mobilisation. The signal, anti-aircraft, mortar and carrier platoons, who were Wycombe residents, were brought to Aylesbury and billeted in the town.
It soon became known that the Battalion was to move and concentrate somewhere. Rumour was rife, but it was not long before the true destination—Newbury—became common knowledge.
Billets at Newbury were in the racecourse buildings on the southeast side of the town. All companies were allotted loose-boxes in the stables for sleeping, office and stores accommodation. Men slept ten to a box on stone floors until bed-boards were issued three weeks after arrival.
Near the course itself were several tote buildings which were used as company dining halls and the quartermaster’s stores: also in this area were the serjeants’ quarters and mess and the orderly room.
In early October the brigade anti-tank company was formed. Each battalion in the brigade provided a platoon; that from the 1st Bucks was chosen mostly from B Company, which was over strength. They concentrated at Newtown, two miles south of Newbury.
Soon after arrival at Newbury all ranks had been issued with at least one suit of battledress. Old soldiers received it at first with scorn and wore it with pained looks on their faces. In the 1st Bucks there were no cheers at the lack of buttons to polish. But the new dress gradually gained in popularity as men grew used to it.
In contrast to battledress, the new pattern web equipment caught on quickly. Fitting it together for the first time was a complete jigsaw puzzle, but once this intricate process had been mastered the ease with which it could be adjusted for comfort was appreciated by all.
Fighting the bogy of inexperience was the main task in training the Battalion in the first months of the war. As with any Territorial battalion, the changeover from partial to full-time service was by no means easy.
The Battalion was allotted a good training area on Greenham Common. The centre of the common was an hour’s march from the racecourse, which in itself was an ideal distance for untrained men to march twice daily.
Directly on arrival at Newbury regular Battalion route marches were begun. Held every Friday, distances at first were little more than a dozen miles; soon, however, the normal march varied between sixteen and twenty. When these marches were introduced many voices were heard among other ranks complaining that they had been told that marching would not be necessary in the “new mechanised warfare.”But friendly rivalries between companies grew and not many weeks had passed before everybody began to take a pride in covering twenty miles successfully and marching into camp to the Battalion march played by the band. Later all ranks who fought in France and Belgium in May, 1940, paid whole-hearted tribute to Colonel Burnett-Brown’s far-sighted marching policy. 1
Only one range was available, at Churn on the Berkshire Downs near East Ilsley. No company was able to make more than a single visit, the shortage of .303 being given as the reason.
Besides the medically unfit, all men under 19 years of age had to be posted away. The majority went to the 2nd Bucks.
The resulting gaps in the Battalion’s strength were quickly made good. The first draft, over a hundred men from the Somerset Light Infantry, arrived at the end of October. These men, nearly all of them Militia who had been called up in the summer. Strength was completed to war establishment by a small draft from the Regimental Depot in December. It consisted almost entirely of reservists.
By the end of December equipment and transport had been almost completed to G1098 scale. Two-inch mortars were in short supply and none was issued. No. 3 Platoon’s second 3-inch mortar arrived. Signal equipment was complete. The carrier platoon, who had all ten carriers by the end of September.
Except for a small rear party of two officers and forty men, the whole Battalion was granted ten days’ leave over the Christmas week. Although this was not officially embarkation leave, it was generally known that it was so.
A week before sailing the division was visited by His Majesty The King. The whole 145th Brigade and others of the division, including the 226th Field Company, R.E. the 4th Cheshires and the 145th Field Ambulance, all paraded in intense cold on the racecourse. If there had been any doubt about the division’s imminent departure overseas, it was soon dispelled by His Majesty’s inspection. 2
1.The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 1: September 1939 - June 1940 Pages 23-31, 2.The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 1: September 1939 - June 1940 Pages 45-50