Even before the German invasion of Poland took place (1 September 1939), Britain was preparing for war, mobilizing its fleet, calling up reservists (the Territorial Army), and even evacuating civilians from London...
The plan was this. In the event of an international situation deteriorating to such an extent that the Government felt it could not carry on without the backing of the 54th (County of London) H.A.A. Regiment, R.A. (and perhaps some other units of the Territorial Army as well), the summons would be passed down through channels of ever-diminishing grandeur until it reached the permanent staff at the drill hall, Putney; the permanent staff would then ring up the keymen, and the keymen would ring up the sub-keymen, whose duty it was to inform what I can only call the sub-submen, so that to the sub-keyman fell the responsible and arduous duty of getting out his car and actually calling in person at the doors of those whose names were inscribed on his folder ....
Despite, or in ignorance of, these arrangements, Hitler continued his aggressive preparations against Poland, and on 24 August 1939 the call came. I wish I could say that I answered it with flashing eyes and a gesture of defiance. But when the sergeant rang me up at my office and told me to report at the drill hall without delay, my first feeling, as I remember it, was that this really was going a bit too far .... We had recently got back from a month's "embodiment" -- a fortnight on operational gun positions "just in case" and a fortnight at practice camp -- and twenty-eight days in khaki seemed, in those far-off days -- about as much as could reasonably be demanded of any private citizen. To be rung up with this peremptory order at 2:30 in the afternoon, in the sanctity of one's own office, was getting very near downright impertinence.
"Oh, but look here, Sergeant, this is getting beyond a joke. I mean, I've got my work to do, you know."
I don't claim that these were my actual words. It is possible that, on reflection, I may have substituted the shorter form, "Yes, Sergeant." But I know what I was thinking.
I remember laying down the receiver and looking slowly round the office. It seemed much the same. The sun still streamed through the window on the papers on my desk, the half-written letter, the note to ring up So-and-so at four, the memo about to-morrow's meeting. On the window-sill lay the brown-paper parcel containing the new pullover to which I had treated myself during the lunch hour .... Everything was just as it had been two minutes ago; only now it had no significance. It was incredible that I should have been concerned, a few short moments ago, with the phrasing of a letter that seemed to belong to so remote a point in time, to have been written by so dim and irrecoverable a personality. This sense of being suddenly cut off from one's own past, and future, is the strongest recollection I have of this particular day.
On the way home to pick up my car and my gear the feeling of numbness evaporated and a certain excitement came over me. After all, I was a sub-keyman. My own moment of shock was over, and I was now to be the bringer of startling news to others -- always a pleasurable occupation. "Get cracking, Gunner Bones," I should say. "It's war!" And Gunner Bones ... would pale beneath his tan, while I stood calm and collected on his doorstep. These unworthy thoughts sustained me through most of the journey, save for a grim moment as my bus passed the ground of my club and I remembered that I was due to play tennis there that evening, with perhaps a swim to follow. Tennis! The Lord alone knew when my next game would be ....
My recollections of rounding up my sub-submen and driving to the drill hall are vague. But a few random pictures remain of the drill hall itself. I remember a scene of some confusion. I remember sitting on my kit-bag, with that sensation of slight sickness one used to get on the first day of school, wishing, quite simply and unheroically, that I was back home again, and I remember falling in full marching order and then falling out again to get stripped to the waist for a medical inspection. I remember the M.O. asking whether I felt all right as I halted in front of him, and dismissing me with a kindly nod when I assured him that I felt fine, thank you ....
Somebody was shouting my name. What now? Could it be that they had decided to get along without me? "Bit of a muddle. Didn't mean to trouble a busy man like you, sir. Get off home as soon as you like." However, it turned out to be not quite that. They told me the sergeant wanted me.
"Ah, there you are. Is that stinking old red car outside yours?"
"The thirty-two horse La Salle?"
"I don't care what it is. Is it yours?"
"Then say so. You're to take the Battery Commander down to the gun site."
"The Battery Commander? Crikey!"
"He's ready now."
There's glory for you. Just the Battery Commander and me -- leading the van. They piled his kit in the dickey, somebody stuck an Air Defence of Great Britain: Priority label on the windscreen, and we were off.
This was, without question, my finest hour. Never again throughout the war did I feel so important -- never again, to be truthful, did I feel important at all; but just at this moment I felt terrific.