Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) - Recollections by D G Barnard

Little is known of D G Barnard apart from the letter below that was published in Kent Life in February 1973. It is consistent with other memories that life was hard in the camp broken by occasional visits to local pubs and to Gravesend and Maidstone.

I arrived at Wrotham Camp early in January 1943, with about 45 other Sappers from the Kitchener Barracks, Chatham, travelling by train via Swanley Junction and then down the Maidstone line to Borough Green Station. Most of this batch was destined for the Field, and from the Camp HQ were promptly moved on to Dartford, taking with them the unexpired portion of the day’s rations. For a long time, the Camp HQ did not seem to know what to do with the remaining half dozen of us and through a combination of misadventures, we did not eat or drink for over twenty-four hours.

The Camp was divided into three Wings, each run by a different regiment. We were sent to the Leicesters, situated in what, I believe, is now known as Vigo Village. Another wing was managed by the Sherwood Foresters, but the third regiment, I cannot now remember [Ed. Royal Berkshires]. We arrived at the Leicesters’ camp in the pouring rain in the black-out, jumping out of the truck into a sea of mud. It rained most days during the weeks I was there, and we became used to the mud, and the dripping branches, the former upsetting the instructors’ efforts to get us to “move at the double”. Rumour said that the camp had originally been for US Forces, who, having looked at it, rejected it.

Our main exercise ground was known as “Happy Valley” – a pleasant spot in fine weather, with small bungalows or shacks spotted about on the hillside; in this instance, rumour had it that it contained a nudist colony before the war.

We lived in Nissen huts among the trees. When German aircraft were about at night, flak would rain down onto the huts. I assumed that this came from the London guns, as there were not any locally. In addition, aircraft from Gravesend would take off and return on these occasions, so that sleep was impossible, fortunately, such raids were infrequent.

Each evening would be taken up with scraping the mud off boots and webbing for the parade the next morning. A grand spirit developed in the huts, everyone helping each other. Each hut contained a combustion stove, but coal or coke was not allowed. We were given a machete, however, with permission to down small branches of trees. As these were always green and wet, we had to use our initiative to keep a fire going. Being near to the boiler house, and observing the evening habits of the stoker, we were able to “borrow’’ a little of his coal. Also, the Naafi was situated opposite the coal compound, which was surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. It was a frequent occurrence for a cadet to have to do up his shoelace or drop something by this fence, in which time one arm would quickly reach through to grab the largest piece of coal possible. We had a half-day on Thursday for recreation. There was only one truck available, which went to Maidstone. The remainder had to make their own way, by hitch-hiking, and many would go Gravesend, where, provided the cadet was at the bus station by 9.30 pm the good old Maidstone and District would guarantee to run him back to the stop nearest to camp.

Apart from basic military training, cadets were instructed in road transport. For those who could not even ride a bicycle, facilities were available. There was a large figure 8 for beginner motorcyclists to amble around. During a week’s course, cadets would graduate from this to a convoy on the open road, the route being Cobham, Gravesend, Longfield, and return. All around this route, one would see gaps in fences and hedges as evidence of a motorcycle having taken over from its rider. The finale of the week was “rough riding’ through woods near Chatham.

The route for potential truck drivers was via Gravesend, Dartford, Farningham and Wrotham. This was a pleasant time in the weather and half a dozen cadets would be allocated to the truck. A highlight of the course was near the end when a day was spent in map reading, each reference leading to a public house, which included the “Cricketers” at Meopham, and “The Green Man’ somewhere to the west of the Gravesend – Wrotham road.

No one was sorry to leave Wrotham Camp. It was a means to an end which we considered to be a form of “Hell” at the time. Thousands of cadets passed through, and it was a world of its own, which one might find oneself rubbing shoulders with old school friends, workmates from civilian life, or even a member of the Royal Family.

Author: D G Barnard
Editor: Dick Hogbin, Tony Piper
Acknowledgements: Memories of Wrotham Camp Feb 1973 © Kent Life
Last Updated: 02 September 2021