It was in January 1941 that I, Frank Slater a conscript from the beginning of the war and serving in the Royal Corps of Signals, was posted to Brixworth Hall in Northamptonshire. The Hall had been commandeered by the Army following the outbreak of war in 1939. The infant 9th Armoured Divisional Signals Unit was probably the first Army unit to occupy the Hall, a 17th century mansion that had seen better days and appeared not to have been occupied for some considerable time. The lawns and gardens were overgrown and obviously had received no attention for many years. All the rooms were in a dreadful state, damp with peeling wallpaper and broken windows which let in the rain and snow and at first there was neither heating nor lighting. There was a lake with, situated on one bank, a boathouse housing a punt which had clearly been a main feature but by now had suffered from the same degree of neglect as the Hall. Some two months later, in a spirit of adventure, I took out the punt and after carefully launching it on the lake I enjoyed a quiet half hour gently moving over the surface of the water, shaded by trees and well secluded. Until reality called I dreamed of the Hall as it might have been when it was a home.
As a junior NCO I was given charge of fourteen men in “Number 1 Barrack Room”. The room was on the ground floor and had a fire grate, there was also a piano but I can’t remember if anyone was able to play it during the time I was there. I set up a morning and evening cleaning rota for every day of the week and each man was allocated his part in it. My instructions were, Morning: The men detailed for the day will sweep the floor, remove dirt and ashes from the fire grate and dust the ledges and the piano. Evening: The same men will collect fuel for the fire and light it in the evening. Additionally: Each man is held responsible for the cleanliness and order of his own bed space.
We slept on a paillasse – a cotton bag we filled with straw - laid on the bare, somewhat dusty wooden floor. We obtained the straw, which did not appear to be either sufficiently dry or clean for use as a bed, from an outhouse but it was all there was. The progression of winter brought with it frost followed by snow for which the broken windows offered no protection. We awoke after a night-time of shivering with snow on our beds and on the floor. With no means of drying the blankets it seemed we would have to sleep through the winter inside a damp bed. Naturally, the situation brought forth a spate of army jokes and phrases, which in the circumstances were amusing, such as:
“All these things are set to try us and we must bear them with true Christian fortitude.”
“Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
We slept in our shirt and vest, the army did not encourage the use of pyjamas by soldiers and NCO’s. Those soldiers in the RAF – known as the “Brylcream Boys” – were treated differently, we understood they were allowed pyjamas but don’t ask me why! They also wore shoes whereas we in the Army wore boots.
We washed, shaved and even showered outside in cold water, all very unpleasant. At meal times we used our own tin mugs, knives, forks and plates and these we also washed outside under a cold tap, which didn’t get them very clean. After meals with a lot of fat the plate became coated with grease and I clearly remember it accumulating to the extent that it could be scraped off with a knife. Eventually we did get a fire set up to heat a tub of hot water where we could wash our plates.
I seem to remember finding an outhouse near the Hall where there was an old stationary paraffin engine used to drive a direct current electrical generator to charge a bank of lead-acid batteries and supply lighting to the Hall. It seemed possible that with help from some of the men we could get the engine and the generator running once again. This became an enjoyable spare time project for myself and several volunteers and in due course we successfully got it all going to cheers when the lights came on in our rooms. My daily task was to prepare the signalmen of the unit for their wartime life as wireless operators instructing them in the rudiments of wireless telegraph theory, the construction and maintenance of Army Tank wireless sets and the simple maintenance of petrol engines and electric generators. Gradually, more wireless equipment began to arrive and also a vehicle so I was able to extend and develop the practical training.
Then on Saturday 29th March 1941 my time with the 9th Armoured Divisional Signals Unit ended abruptly whilst I was in a cinema in Northampton. The film had hardly started when I suffered a severe pain on the right side of my stomach and knew I must get back to camp as soon as possible fearing the worst. As I left the cinema in my uniform and waited for a bus the pain was so great I was unable to stand upright. When I arrived at the entrance the sentry pointing his rifle gave the usual challenge, “Halt, who goes there?” I answered somewhat weekly “Friend” and added in a whisper, “I am ill”. Rapidly the gate was opened and I was assisted into Brixworth Hall and on to my bed which, hard as it was, I was glad to be there and under the blankets. As they tried to get a Medical Officer to come to see me it transpired that the only one available was some distance away and so it was a couple of hours or so before he arrived to examine me. He said I must go to hospital as soon as possible for an emergency operation on my appendix. Again there was long delay before the Army ambulance arrived to take me to Northampton General Hospital where in the small hours I was operated on. After army convalescence and then remedial exercises I was posted to another unit and never saw Brixworth Hall again.
Brixworth Hall, looking rather dilapidated, after World War 2. It was demolished in the 1950s.