Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) - Recollections by Donald Dougall
In November 1972 Donald Dougall wrote to Kent Life about life in the pre-OCTU camp towards the end of the war. He includes a hair-raising story about two old ladies whose house in Cuxton was riddled with bullets from a live ammunition training course.
Towards the close of 1944, I returned from four years’ service in the Middle East and Italy. Soon came a posting as an instructor to the Pre-O.C.T.U. training camp – set in cold, wet woods at the top of the North Downs escarpment, above Trottiscliffe and Wrotham.
I remember well the evening of my arrival at Wrotham Camp – after a tedious and icy journey from my north-of-England depot. A kindly mess servant produced a cold snack and, as I sat, late at night, in the deserted mess dining room, a distant explosion shook the whole Nissen hut. This, the waiter calmly explained, was caused by one of ‘the new V2 rockets which the Germans were sending over as successors to the V1 “flying bombs”. The rocket, that night, seemed to have landed in the Swanley area. Many more were to follow in the coming weeks.
In those days, the butted camp was served by a network of hard roads and paths which intersected the dripping woods. All-day these roads rang to the sound of nailed boots “at the double”; the screams of drill sergeants on the asphalt parade grounds echoed through the trees, mingling with the shouts of officers and N.C.O.s urging on the cadets under training.
We were a mixed bag of officer-instructors at Wrotham Camp, from many regiments. I was attached to the 4th Bn. The Royal Berkshire Regiment, commanded by Lt.-Col. F. E. A. Taylor, T.D., who, I think, lived at Bickley.
By day we gave military lectures, taught tactics and map-reading and led our little platoons of potential officers on forced marches through Fairseat and up and down the great, chalk escarpment. We tried – not very well, I now realise – to appear fit, convincing, keen and enthusiastic: waving our walking sticks and shouting encouragement, we scurried over assault courses, braving the overhead Bren-gun fire, the smoke-grenades and the thunderflashes.
After the day’s work and a meal, unless booked for night exercises in the areas of Luddesdown, Halling Quarries and the Pilgrims’ Way, a number of us were wont to repair to the Cricketers Inn at Meopham – a popular “services” pub in those days – returning mellow and suitably anaesthetised to fall into bronchitic sleep in “a condensation of Nissen huts”.
In zealous pursuit of the cult of battlefield realism, by far the most dangerous and terrifying of the many battle exercises through which we thrust our luckless trainees was a mock house-clearing affair, held in a disused factory on the left bank of the Medway, at Cuxton.
Most of the officer-instructors were men who had seen action – real action. They included former Desert Rats, Chindits, Special Air Service men and Paratroopers. Diverse in character and field experience, all were cynically agreed that the Cuxton factory exercise was probably the most dangerous “battle” in which they had ever taken part! Before long, our officers’ mess wit had labelled this weekly shambles “Appointment with Fear” – after the popular radio programme of those times. A preliminary touch of the macabre was lent to the proceedings by the presence of an ambulance, parked at the factory entrance, in readiness to remove the real casualties which sometimes resulted from the factory “battles”. The exercise began with the usual assumption that the whole of the Cuxton factory was seething with desperate suicidal enemies.
Small groups of cadets, accompanied by pale apprehensive instructors, set off in turn to run the gamut of the buildings. The cadets were armed with Sten-guns and grenades. Off ‘Sidney Street’ – the main corridor of the factory – were several large rooms containing “enemy” in the form of wall targets. Each room was given clearance treatment. First, the cadet section leader tossed a grenade. If his aim was good and he was as calm as John Wayne or Jason King, the grenade fell well inside the room. If not so good, the grenade might hit the door-frame and bounce back – whereupon we all ran (with the instructors conspicuously in the lead!) to positions of cover. After the explosion, the cadets rushed to the doorway and sprayed the room interior with bullets. Overhead machine guns, manned by bored sergeants, pumped their bullets into safety pockets of chalk and sandbags. Other sergeants further enlivened the proceedings with smoke bombs and thunderflashes.
No one was ever quite sure whether all the thousands of rounds fired from the machine and Sten-guns went where they were meant to go – into the walls and stop pits. Until the day … the day the two elderly ladies came smiling, to the Camp Orderly Room. The two ladies were from a quiet house on the far bank of the Medway. They were such nice ladies, everyone thought – Miss Agnes’s and Miss Emily’s of a past age. It seemed they had been taking tea one afternoon in the front parlour when the window appeared suddenly to break in several places at once. “Not just one big crack, you understand,” explained Miss Emily. “Just a number of splintery, little, round holes … almost a pattern. And there were holes in the wall-frieze, too, and a little plaster fell and made rather a mess on our carpet.”
The ladies didn’t want to bother anyone. They knew how busy we were training men to win this horrid war, but a neighbour had suggested that what had happened must be “something to do with the soldiers” and that they ought really to mention the occurrence to the “gentleman in charge” at the camp. After all, he may have lost some “parts of equipment” and might wish to recover them from the house! Perhaps he could come to tea one day?
They hated to ask, but, if it was agreed that the damage was due to “the bangs”, could they get in a man to do the repairs and could they send the bill to the gentleman in charge”? “Has this ever happened before ?” queried a pale adjutant. “Oh, not to speak of. There was just that time, dear, when you were in the -er- bathroom and one, just one tiny hole, appeared. Just behind your head, dear, wasn’t it? Gave you quite a start. They had just put some sticky tape over it for the time being.”
The ladies sought our expert opinion. Could it be some form of vibration? There did seem to be rather a noise on some days from across the river. They stayed for tea and later took a glass of sherry. How kind everyone was!” “When you think, Agnes, what all these poor men are going through … under fire … in that horrid, ugly factory across the river . . . so that we can live in peace and security. …”
After many years, I motored my nostalgia along that Meopham-Wrotham road. How it’s all changed. Are there others who recall the days of the OCTU camp?
Author: Donald Dougall
Editors: Dick Hogbin, Tony Piper
Acknowledgements: Donald Dougall Nov 1972 © Kent Life
Last Updated: 02 September 2021