Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) - Recollections by Duncan Torrance
The time had now come for us to go to the Pre-OCTU at Wrotham in Kent. We had heard a lot about the standard of life at Officer Cadet Training Units and were looking forward to even better conditions than we had at present. We did, however, realise that our work would be hard, but our treatment was that of ‘gentlemen’.
What a shock awaited us. The food was average. Our Nissen huts were packed with about eighteen to twenty of us or about twice the correct number. The ablutions and unpartitioned latrines were a quarter of a mile from our huts and both in opposite directions. While I was there, a current rumour suggested the camp had been built for the Americans. They took one look and condemned the place.
When we first arrived we were tested in our knowledge of infantry work, physical condition, driving and maintenance. My physical condition seemed to satisfy them. There was no doubt about my driving experience as I had neither driven a truck nor ridden a motorcycle. I had only very little experience in Father’s car and agricultural tractors.
I was however very surprised when I found I was required to have six weeks of infantry training. This is despite my previous experience in the Army as well as outside it. But I afterwards discovered that the extra infantry training had been awarded by WOSBy and intended to increase my confidence. A Pre-OCTU small arms examiner told me that my knowledge of small arms was up to the standard of instructor at the Small Arms School at Catterick. In fact, I had been there on a course while I was in the Home Guard but my present examiner had to mark me down because the WOSBy had said I needed more confidence?
‘It’s an ill wind that blows no good’. At that time, there was a scheme whereby cadets were posted to India for OTS. OTS was to train cadets as officers but in Indian OCTU’s. They were then already in the Far East. They might be posted to Indian Army Units. They were certainly there ready for the war against Japan.
I now know that the anticipated allied casualties were expected to be between 1½ and 2 million before Japan was conquered and the Far East made safe. Then, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For some, savage nuclear bombing with casualties. I and many others of that time welcomed it with great relief. We did not then know that 27% of our prisoners had died, or been killed by the Japanese. whereas 4% of the prisoners in German hands died.
A number of friends at pre-OCTU went to OTS. But, fortunately for me, by the time I’d completed my extended course, the scheme had finished. We did our driving and maintenance before our infantry training and had a grand time. A King’s Royal Rifle Corps cadet and I were put onto a three-ton Bedford truck. As Kipling said; ‘And so began the blood and stink, the real blood sport of Britain.’
We spent the mornings ’till ten o’clock doing practical maintenance or more usually standing about arguing, and then had the rest of the day driving with an instructor, but not in convoy. The only time when the vehicles were collected together was at one of the transport cafes in the district, where much time (and money) was spent. I was glad I happened to get one of the three tonners. Although somewhat harder to drive, one learnt a lot more from them and then, as I subsequently found, a 15 cwt seemed simple after one of these monsters.
After our week on trucks, we went over to a week’s motorcycling. The first two days were spent on a cinder track and were rather dull. The next three were spent on the road in convoys. On these convoys, the great idea was to get to the back and so travel faster. Many dodges were used to get there, plug leads detached, engines stalled, petrol turned off, and so on.
The last day was without a doubt the best. We had a day’s rough riding and discovered that many spectacular feats could be accomplished very easily and give a great deal of pleasure to the rider without any danger.
At the end of this exciting fortnight, it seemed very boring to return to the humdrum infantryman’s life. We started with lesson 1 on the rifle ‘Care and Cleaning’ followed by all the other usual items. Our instructors were some of the best in the country. Had it not been so, some of us would have gone completely mad. It might be interesting to note, that there were several Air Force personnel doing the same course as ourselves, prior to the same OCTU. Surely, either they must leave Wrotham with insufficient training, or we must have wasted our first six months in the Army, as well as up to 4 years of pre-service training in some cases.
A high standard of physical condition was expected of us. One of the ways it was obtained was by having our training area at the bottom of a 300-foot escarpment, with the old Pilgrim’s Way running in the Valley. Up and down which we had to double continuously to get to our billets. Another way was cross-country runs which, although it may be a strange confession, I began to enjoy and looked forward to one each week.
The whole climax of the training was a forty-eight-hour scheme followed by a blitz course. The camp was rife with rumours about both, particularly the blitz course, and to most of us, they formed a rather depressing outlook. Eventually, one afternoon, we started the forty-eight-hour scheme. It began from the moment we left camp with three-section attacks, all very arduous as they involved working and assaulting up and down the escarpment.
At half-past-five we were given a slice of bread and cheese and some tea. Then we set off on a ten-mile march. I remember wondering how many of the local villagers knew of our sufferings as we marched through their villages that evening, singing as if we hadn’t a care in the world.
The first highlight of the evening was when a Ford van drew up in the middle of the platoon. We were marching in a dispersed formation in single file, either side of the road. A Ford van had pulled up, a land girl popped her head out, the sergeant ran up and jumped into the van.
Everyone knew the sergeant was considered to be a connoisseur as far as women were concerned, but few imagined him to be such a magnetic attraction. When he emerged from the van a little further on with some eggs, it then dawned on us that he was operating on a carefully prearranged plan. Greatly was his high state of organisation to be commended.
He displayed one of his greatest pieces of wit every Saturday morning. He would commend us “Gentlemen, have a good time. Don’t get caught”. Always started the weekend with a smile.
By nine o’clock, we had completed about eight of our ten miles. It had previously been intimated that a halt by a ‘pub’ might be arranged. In due course, this resourceful sergeant halted us outside an inn. Never Was so much beer consumed by so few in such a short time. We were there twenty minutes and every single person drank at least three pints. At long last, we got that grand feeling of being able to swill fluid around our mouths. In a half-drunken way, we sang the two miles to the bivy area in a quarry. We joked with the children returning from the hay harvest, as they walked along in the ranks with us.
On arrival at the quarry we had a meal and, in the failing light, erected our bivies. We found great difficulty in finding ground that was both level and reasonably soft. I made mine on the side of a hillock, but such that I rolled onto some scrub.
Hardly had we started our bivies when we had to fall in for a night compass march. We had always done two-night schemes a week at Wrotham, none of which were particularly interesting or exciting. This was no exception. We were all still somewhat light-hearted as a result of our earlier visit to the pub and soon completed our night compass march. We did it in pairs. Our pair ran most of the way and completed the course in record time. In the morning we packed up and moved on to an old factory some five miles away from where we did street fighting with live ammunition. This proved a great sport. Everyone enjoyed it. As only a small number could do the scheme at once, the others enjoyed a long time basking in the sun.
In the afternoon we had a map reading lesson working from map to ground. Everyone was tired and hardly in the mood for map reading. Had it not been for the many questions and problems, we would all have been fast asleep. The latter part of the afternoon and part of the evening was occupied in marching ten miles to a bivouac area in wooded country. No sooner had we started to cook our evening meal than it began to pour down with rain, as it did for the rest of the night.
We had a night ‘OP’ in which I was put in charge of a section defending a wood. I will always remember crawling about that sodden wood, mistaking my own sentries for the enemy. At midnight we went to bed in our bivies which we had succeeded in making reasonably waterproof. It was four o’clock in the morning when we ‘stood to’. It was still raining as hard as ever. I shaved in the pool of water that had collected in my groundsheet. Fortunately, the rain soon stopped and we were able both to pull down our bivies and cook our breakfasts even if in wet clothes and sodden surroundings.
It may be of interest to note that our N.C.O.s were constantly changed. Fresh instructors joining us from the camp and the wearied returning. This morning was the great morning of the blitz course. We were all somewhat apprehensive. After going by truck to the head of a quarry, we carried guns and ammunition to the various firing points. Then, one by one, we went through the course.
The course itself was in the bottom of a chalk pit with a precipitously undulating scrub-covered floor. Overhead fire from five brens mounted on tripods at the top of the quarry, and amatol explosions on the floor of the quarry were all operated by a demonstration platoon of thirty men. Ten sergeants were also in attendance to escort and encourage each cadet through the course.
A sinister sight was an ambulance and medical orderlies waiting in attendance for the dead and dying. It was not needed. The course itself was of four legs, rifle, Sten gun, Brenbgun and grenade. This covered from one and a half to two miles of rough ground, with a climb up three hundred or so steps roughly hewn in the quarry face.
On reaching the top, we had to clean our rifle barrels with boiling water and have them inspected. The whole thing took an average person thirty minutes.
It sounds pretty horrible, especially when it is remembered we had just done a scheme. But it was the climax of the course. When our rifles had been inspected, we need have no further worries about Wrotham.
In due course, we left the infantry wing and commenced a weeks ‘holding out’, waiting for vacancies at the OCTU’s. A more boring and exasperating week I have never spent. The days were occupied with training that was ridiculous and useless. Our evenings, often up ’till midnight, were spent polishing to meet the high requirements made of us. Worse than this, we were due for leave. Our date of departure was altered. Our leave period was shortened daily. Until eventually, thank Heaven, the lack of accommodation forced them to push us up to thirteen days leave.
Departure was a notable event. We were all dispersed to different stations in the locality to try and ease the strain on the railway. It was August Bank Holiday. I was in a group that arrived at Gravesend Station five minutes behind the scheduled departure of a London train. The train was ten minutes late. That was the first bit of luck.
The tubes were crowded. Unskilled in their use, I nearly got lost, but eventually arrived at Kings Cross at 4:10, hoping to catch the 4:07. I rushed to the platform but threw my kit bag down in disgust. It had left on time. The loudspeaker seemed almost human when it announced a special train due to leave at 4:15. What wonderful luck.
During an earlier leave, we’d celebrated VE day, the end of the war in Europe. This leave was wonderful too. The war with Japan ended, VJ day. A great celebration. For me, and so many others, a great relief. We would not be called upon to face an enemy who fought ruthlessly and treated his prisoners shamefully.
Author: Duncan Torrance
Editor: Tony Piper
Acknowledgements: WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar
Last Updated: 31 August 2021