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Talk given by Stuart Gray at Perranporth Memorial Hall, Saturday evening, 17th July 2010

July 26, 2010


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you all for being present here tonight.

I owe a great deal of thanks to many people:

to Commander Ian Inskip, Royal British Legion Coordinator for Cornwall, for the massive amount of time and effort needed to organise this weekend’s events.

to Major Mick Pawlak for his assistance and the tour of Penhale Camp.

Not least I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all those who freely made available to me their memories, their photographs, official documents, personal letters, etc., which I was then able to share with all involved in the Penhale story. It added immeasurably to our understanding of the event and how it affected the families.

I have been asked specifically to speak about my father’s wartime experiences, and I hope I am not repeating what many may already have heard.

My late father, Andrew Gray, was born in 1918, the youngest of 9 children. Like all the neighbours, his family was poor and Andy ran about as a youngster in bare feet during the summer, but he had a pair of boots for winter use.

In those days, most people left school at 14 to earn a living, and Andy was no exception. He was fortunate to obtain a job as an apprentice butcher with  Clydebank Cooperative Society, especially at the start of the Great Depression with its high unemployment rate.

In February 1939, Dunbartonshire’s Territorial Army unit, the 9th. Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, an infantry regiment, was converted by Government decree to a regiment of Royal Artillery, the 54th. Light Anti Aircraft Regiment. As war with Germany became more certain, it was decided to form a duplicate regiment of the 54th., and hence the 58th. Light Anti Aircraft Regiment started recruiting in Dunbartonshire in June 1939, headquartered in Clydebank.

My father’s involvement with the 58th. began when some of his friends, already enlisted in the Regiment, told him that they were short of a butcher for the upcoming first annual camp of the Regiment. Four days before the camp to Stiffkey, Norfolk, my father signed on, no doubt influenced by the £3 training bounty plus the one shilling per day pay. It was at Stiffkey that the only known photos of the regiment were taken, all 185 men in it most probably Scots from Dunbartonshire. Although a brand new regiment, the 58th. were highly praised for their discipline, their marching ability and having a well-run camp.

Thereafter, Government decided to increase regimental strength yet again, and a draft of English, Welsh and Irish militiamen were posted into the ranks of the 58th. turning them from a purely Scottish regiment into a British one.

In March 1940, the 58th. Light Anti Aircraft Regiment received a detachment of Royal Army Ordnance Corps and Royal Corps of Signals who were attached to, lived with, and fought alongside the 58th. They were effectively members of the 58th. despite their origins.

In the same month the Regiment was posted to France as part of the British Expeditionary force. My father remembers the whole regiment had only one case of twenty rifles amongst over 600 men, and each officer had a revolver. Britain was not well prepared for war.

In France, units of the 58th. defended airfields, ports, military installations etc. in scattered locations. My father’s particular unit was stationed on a section of the Maginot Line, operating obsolete French Naval guns. They had never seen a big gun till then, never mind fired one!

The Germans attacked suddenly on 10th. May 1940, and chaos resulted. 58th. Regimental Headquarters was soon ordered to return to Britain, leaving their equipment behind, which angered the men. Colonel Kirsop, Commanding Officer of the regiment, was killed at Dunkirk in an air raid. The second in command and 15 others were also killed during this period. Up to 100 men were captured by the Germans.

My father took part in a 5 man patrol sent out to destroy two German tanks which had run out of fuel somewhere outside Calais. On the way back under heavy shell and machine gun fire, the whole party was knocked over and only Sergeant Larry Robb and my father escaped. Both are mentioned in the Regimental History of the 58th. as joining with men of the King’s Own Royal Regiment and “doing good work with their Bren guns.”

My father and a mixed party thereafter accompanied three light tanks which were trying to break out from the surrounded town of Calais to Dunkirk. The tanks were quickly knocked out by the Germans, and the remaining men retreated back the way they had come. My father spied an old abandoned lifeboat beached well up amongst the sand dunes. The planking had shrunk over the years and there were gaps between each plank. However, my father knew that the planks would swell in the seawater, and he had the men with him drag the old lifeboat into the water. They broke up the duckboards for paddles and set out for Britain, baling out water with their tin helmets.

Well out into the English Channel, a German plane came over them low, and turned to come back. As one, the twenty or so men in the boat jumped overboard and hung onto the external rope loops of the lifeboat. They expected, yet again, that their last moment had come.

However, the pilot merely waggled the wings of his plane as he passed overhead, and carried on for bigger targets, of which there were plenty.

Soaked, cold and miserable, the men hauled themselves wearily back into the boat and continued paddling and baling.

Some time after, a French motor torpedo boat drew alongside and threw them a line. Spirits soared in the lifeboat – a tow straight back to Britain! However, where they ended up was at the jetty at Dunkirk on the outside of ranks of tied up French fishing boats. The men had to cross from boat to boat to reach the jetty, and quite a few succumbed to the hospitality of the French fishermen who plied them with wine and brandy.

My father and two others reached the jetty to be met by an obviously shell-shocked army Captain, who ordered them to put out a fire in a 5 storey building which was ablaze on the top floors. The men looked at each other, saluted the Captain, ran in the front door of the blazing building, then jumped out a side window out of sight of the Captain and disappeared from the area!

Dunkirk was being very heavily shelled and bombed and several nerve wracking days were spent on the beaches waiting for rescue. With a badly burned arm, my father was eventually taken off and returned to Britain.

He was at Penhale Army Camp when the raid occurred and he lost his good friend Gunner James Litster. Incidentally there are 4 generations of Jimmy Litster’s family present here tonight.

My father was one of several posted two days later to man Anti Aircraft guns at St. Eval Airfield and he could not attend the funeral held on the 11th. July. It was to be many, many years before he found out where Jimmy was buried.

Since my father’s trade was listed as “Butcher” on his enlistment papers, authority in its wisdom, or otherwise, thought he should be posted to the new “Emergency Cookery Training Centre,” and he ended up as a sergeant instructor cook, and was later posted to India.

Andrew Gray returned to Britain in 1946, to his wife, Joan and the 3 year old son (my elder brother) who he had never seen.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you.

Stuart Gray.

May I invite anyone else who would like to say a few words to please do so now.

Thank you.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 14, 2012 3:19 pm

    This site was moved from Posterous on 13-14 March 2012. This post was viewed 1,750 times on Posterous.

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