The Second World War had a big influence on the Downs east of Brighton centred on the now deserted medieval hamlet of Balsdean. Sometime, probably in May 1942, it was requisitioned to become the ‘Number 3 South Downs Training Area’. This comprised the majority part of the mostly unploughed steep downland hills and valleys between Woodingdean and the lower Ouse Valley, and between the Lewes Road and the sea. Evidence for their activities was hard to ignore in the demolition rubble of our Newmarket Farm excavation. However, apart from general information, such as that unnamed French Canadian troops had been billeted in Balsdean, I haven’t been able to find any publications giving details of the live firing exercises which took place there, and/or of those who trained in the area. Communications with members of the Sussex Military History Society has confirmed that no such research is known to have been done. So – somewhat reluctantly – I have taken on the task of tracing the various regiments who at one time or other may have trained in this area. I was informed that if I find a war diary of a regiment based in this area, it should list both those who were there before them, and those who replaced them.
Private Keneric Wilson, 16th May 1945
I started with the only definitive lead that I had for military training in Balsdean; a summary of a Coroner’s report from the East Sussex Record Office for the accidental death of Private Keneric Wilson whilst on a training exercise there on 16 July 1945.
Date: 20 Jul 1945
Repository: East Sussex Record Office
ESRO reference: COR 3/2/1945/67
Description: Keneric [Wilson] of Flixton, Scarborough, Yorkshire; 33; Private number 14802005, 1st Battalion Sherwood Forseters stationed at Canterbury, Kent, formerly smallholder; at the Royal Sussex County Hospital on 16 Jul 1945; right haemothora following wounds of chest and thoracic aorta caused by an explosion of a mortar bomb fired during training at Balsdean; accidental
Creator(s): Coroner of the Borough of Brighton
Access status: Open
Access Conditions: Closed for 75 years under the Public Records Acts; for access, please consult staff
See more at: http://www.thekeep.info/collections/getrecord/GB179_COR_3_2_1945_67#sthash.XD3AO60W.dpuf
Keneric Wilson 1912 – 1945
An Internet search revealed some biographical information. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission had some basic details;
Service No: 14802005
Date of Death: 16/07/1945
Regiment/Service: Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment) 1st Bn.
Grave Reference: Sec. I. Grave 2.
Cemetery: FOLKTON CHURCH BURIAL GROUND
Additional Information: Son of Richard and Annie Elizabeth Wilson; husband of Jean Wilson, of Cayton.
There is also a photograph of his headstone, which bears the inscription;
Of everlasting love
The Hull Daily Mail newspaper, Saturday 21 July 1945, summarised the inquest report:
SCARBOROUGH SOLDIER KILLED
Mortar Practice Accident Pte. Kenerick Wilson, First Battn. Sherwood Foresters, aged 33, one of five soldiers injured during mortar practice on the South Downs on Tuesday, died soon after admission to hospital. At the inquest yesterday soldier witnesses stated that a tree 12ft. away was blasted, suggesting that the bomb had struck it. Wilson, a smallholder in civil life, lived at Flixton, Scarborough. Verdict: Accidental death.
1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters – 1945
The Museum of the Mercian Regiment website gave some information about the 1st Battalion, Sherwood Foresters;
THE POST WAR YEARS 1945 – 1970
By mid 1945 the 1st Battalion had been re-formed and was training as part of 61 Light Division to move out to take part in the final defeat of the Japanese. However with the end of hostilities its role was changed and instead it joined the Army of Occupation in Germany.
A search of The National Archives catalogue revealed their war diary:
1 Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment)
War Office: Home Forces: War Diaries, Second World War. INFANTRY. 1 Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment).
Held by: The National Archives – War Office, Armed Forces, Judge Advocate General, and related bodies
Reference: WO 166/17198
Subjects: Armed Forces (General Administration) | Army | Conflict | Diaries | Operations, battles and campaigns
A visit to London was therefore in order, but the results were mixed. I give below some edited highlights of their war diary for July 1945 (abbreviations have been translated based a number of guides to military abbreviations and acronyms on the Internet (such as ww2talk.com):
On the 6th July (Charlton Park, [Bishopsbourne,] near Canterbury [Kent]);
Instructions issued to Coys [Companies] for training to be carried out on SOUTHDOWN BLOCK 3 for period 9th – 19th July. See Appendix C.
8th July [Sunday];
‘A’ Coy on Southdown Trg [Training] Area field firing.
15th July [Sunday];
“B” Coy proceed to the Southdowns training area for a three-day field firing exercise.
One O.R [Other Rank] killed and 3 O.Rs wounded in an accident during ‘B’ Coy 2″ mortar field firing exercise in Southdown Trg Area.
Subject: TRG – SOUTHDOWN BLOCK 3
To: List ‘B’
plus: M.O. [Medical Officer],
171 Fd Amb [171st Field Ambulance],
184 Inf Bde. [184th Infantry Brigade]
Ref; O.S. 1″/1 mile sheet 134
From: 2 i/c 1 Foresters [2nd in command, 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters].
1. Coys will carry out trg at SOUTHDOWN BLOCK 3 as follows:
‘A’ Coy – 9 Jul to 11 Jul
‘C’ Coy – 12 July to 14 Jul
‘B’ Coy – 16 Jul to 17 Jul
‘D’ Coy – 18 Jul to 19 Jul
2. During this period, all coys will bivouac in the ex-REME [Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers] hutments at OLD FORGE BARN 789283.
3. (a) Move to and from camp will be carried out in accordance with the following time table:
Coy Leave CHARLTON CAMP Leave OLD FORGE FARM
‘A’ 1400 hrs 8 Jul 1600 hrs 11 Jul
‘C’ 1000 hrs 11 Jul 1400 hrs 15 Jul
‘B’ 0900 hrs 15 Jul 1600 hrs 17 Jul
‘D’ 1000 hrs 17 Jul 1500 hrs 19 Jul
(b) Eight 3-tonners RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] have been applied for to assist in move on each 8, 11, 15 , 17, 19 Jul.
(c) The following BN tpt [Battalion transport] will move with ‘A’ Coy on 8 Jul and return with ‘D’ Coy on 19 Jul, remaining down at SOUTHDOWN from 8 to 19 Jul inclusive:
1 4 x 4 8cwt.
3 3 tonners.
1 Ambulance (to be provided by 171 Fd Amb).
(d) The attention of Coy Comds is drawn to F.S.P.B. pamphlet no. 9 – ‘Movement by Road’ [Field Service Pocket Pocket Book Pamphlet No. 9 – ‘Movement by Road and Rail’, 1943].
Coln [Column] will halt for 20 minutes at 20 minutes to each even hour.
4. (a) Os. C [Officers Commanding] Coys will each take down the following stores:
Bedding Bivouacs, lamps hurricane.
(b) The following stores will be drawn from the Q.M. [Quarter Master] by ‘A’ Coy and any unexpended item will be brought back by ‘D’ Coy at the completion of trg.
Coal, Paraffin, Petrol, Buckets latrine, and Screens latrine.
Q.M. will arrange for one sanitary man to accompany ‘A’ Coy and remain until return of ‘D’ Coy.
(c) Each coy will take their own G.1098 [standard equipment issue] cooking utensils. Any additions to this scale will be drawn by ‘A’ Coy and returned by ‘D’ Coy at end of period. Arrangements for rations will be made direct with coys by the Messing Offr [Officer].
(d) M.T.O. [Mechanical Transport Officer] will make arrangements for drawing POL [Petrol, Oil, Lubricants] by vehs [vehicles] remaining at SOUTHDOWN.
(e) Mail will be fwd [forwarded] with the rations.
5. All coys will ensure that the R.E.M.E. hutments and area are left entirely clean after use. All coys will render a certificate to the Q.M. on return, stating any losses or damages of G.1098 eqpt. (nil returns returned).
6. Each coy will draw from the W.T.O. [Weapons Training Officer] and be responsible for its own amn [amunition] requirements for period allotted.
7. Os.C Coys will ensure that exercises carried out on BLOCK 3 comply with all safety regulations.
Certificates as to blinds [unexploded shells] etc. will be rendered as usual.
8. Sig Offr [Signals Officer] will arrange for comn [communications] police and control throughout period direct with coys.
9. The R.M.O. [Regimental Medical Officer (normally an army General Practitioner with additional training in Pre-Hospital Emergency Care and Occupational Medicine)] will accompany ‘A’ Coy to SOUTHDOWN on 8 Jul and will return on 19 Jul.
Charlton Camp North,
nr Canterbury, Kent.
5 Jul 45.
2 i/c 1 Foresters.
Appendix D included the first week of their training programme (I have only given here that located in ‘South Downs. Block 3‘);
|Coy||Date||Time||Type of Trg|
|A||9||0930-1700||WT [Weapons Training] Circus[?]. Individual Fd Firing.|
|A||10||0930-1700||WT Circus. Firing All Weapons, P.I.A.T.[anti-tank weapon], High Angle (Demonstration)|
|A||11||0830-1600||Individual Split Second Shooting Competition.|
|C||11||1100-1655||Mov to –|
|C||12||0930-1700||Weapon Firing Circus – Digging, Fdcraft [Fieldcraft], Swimming.|
|C||13||0930-1700||As for 12th.|
|C||14||0930-1700||As for 12 – 13th.|
Then, after Appendices E – F, which detailed a Rifle, Bren and Sten gun firing exercise in Broome Park, and the Mobilisation schedule for their forthcoming posting to fight the Japanese, Appendix H returned to their training programme, 16th – 21st July, which included the South Down Block 3 field training exercise. Sunday 15th is not given, possibly because they were in transit (no live firing on Sundays?).
|Coy||Date||Time||Type of Trg|
|B||16||0815-1610||Indv [Individual] Fd Firing.|
|B||17||0815-1615||Indv Fd Firing.|
|D||17||0830-0910||Coy Comds lane[?] Inspection.|
|0915-1655||Move to –|
|Indv Fd Firing|
|D||18||0830-1655||Indv Fd Firing|
|D||19||0830-1655||Indv Fd Firing|
I haven’t included here all of their day to day activities included in this diary – mostly centred around training and other preparations for their planned posting to the Far East to fight the Japanese, of which the above training would have been an integral part.
I am not a military expert, so undoubtedly I will make many errors in interpreting their battalion’s war diary, nevertheless I have made the attempt anyway (if a job’s worth doing, it is worth doing badly!). Please leave a comment when you spot my errors. Also, please indulge me when I state the obvious. I learnt more from reading and making the attempt to understand the minutiae of this war diary than from all of my previous studies. It helped me to get a feel for the details, which I consider to be just as important as the big picture.
It took me a while to understand that the purpose of this war diary was essentially just to record planning and logistics. Accidents happen. Accidents in live firing situations are presumably not much more than unfortunate if they have no significant effect on the fighting ability of the Battalion. By the very end of the war those in command of the 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters would have seen much conflict. They were busy making preparations for being shipped out to the east to face the Japanese. Germany had surrendered. V.E. Day had been and gone, but the Japanese were still fighting.
Analysis and Observations
Careful reading of this war diary, combined with further research on the Internet, revealed further information about the men, equipment and logistics involved in this exercise.
- The 184 Infantry Brigade was involved in the planning of this exercise. They had just received command of the 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters the month before. They were part of the newly reorganised 61st (light) Infantry Division which was, according to Wikipedia, “to be sent to the South-East Asian theatre to fight in the final stages of the Burma Campaign against the Imperial Japanese Army. However, the Japanese surrendered on 15 August 1945 and there was no need for the division to be sent to the Far East.“
- The Regimental Medical Officer (effectively the Battalion’s G.P.) left the relative comfort of the Battalion HQ where he would have been based and stayed with each of the Companies (in their bivouac huts?) for the duration of their field training, so as to be on hand in case of accidents. A strong indication that the approximately 100 men in each of the companies on this training exercise were recognised to be in greater danger of harm than their 700 plus colleagues back in camp.
- 171 Field Ambulance provided an ambulance.
- The Royal Army Service Corps provided eight 3-ton lorries (unfortunately the individual Corps was not named.)
- The Battalion’s own transport pool provided:
- 1 Jeep;
- according to the website, ‘Battalion Organisation during the Second World War‘, each rifle company should have been issued with a 3cwt jeep.
- 1 4 x 4 8cwt;
- The best possibility I have found for this vehicle is a Morris-Commercial PU8/4, 1942[1940/41?], 4×4 8-cwt truck, though Humber and Ford produced similar vehicles, capable of carrying about 3 people in the back. The ‘Historic Military Vehicles Forum‘ have some good pictures. However, 8cwt 4×4 trucks were supposed to be obsolete by June 1944 – in order to standardize production by reducing the range of vehicle types being made – and should have been replaced by both American Jeeps (Royal Army Service Corps – 1939-1945 – Motor Transport website), as well as the 15-cwt trucks of both the Battalion Headquarters and the Signal Platoons, which should have been upgraded to four wheel drive, personnel, standard trucks, capable of transporting about 8 men (see for example the Battalion Organisation website).
- 3 3 tonners;
- one of the 3-ton lorries (normally used to carry stores) would have been the responsibility of the Administrative Platoon (responsible for a range of goods and services), and the other two would have been issued to the Assault Pioneer Platoon (possessors of a range of practical skills and trades largely associated with construction work).
- 2 15cwts;
- each rifle platoon was supposed to have been issued with 3 15cwt trucks, so no problem with provision here.
- 1 Jeep;
- Their Mechanical Transport Officer provided the necessary petrol, oil, and lubricants to fuel and maintain their vehicles, etc. Apparently the Transport Officer was normally a subaltern, the second highest ranking officer in the Administrative Platoon.
- Their Quarter Master provided their coal, paraffin, petrol (presumably fuel for cooking), buckets and screens for their latrine (shared by each company). He was the highest ranking officer in the Administrative Platoon – a Captain.
- A sanitary man remained for the duration of the training exercises. Further research has shown there were generally 4 privates assigned to sanitary duties for the Battalion as a whole. Again, they were part of the Administrative Platoon. At the bottom. J.E. Davies included in his published experiences of Normandy; “Dan Dan the sanitary man. He dug his unit’s latrine pits… and graves for KIA’s (killed in action). Every battalion had a Dan.” I traced Dan back to WW1, via the book, ‘They Called it Passchendaele: The Story of the Battle of Ypres and of the Men Who Fought in it‘ by Lyn MacDonald. She quotes from Rifleman W. Worrell, No. 6905960 12th Btn., Rifle Brigade: “Every company had a sanitary man, and ours was called Dan. Dan, Dan, the sanitary man. Every sanitary man was called Dan regardless of what his proper name was.“
- The Officers Commanding the companies were to take bivouac bedding and hurricane lamps for their men. They were to be staying in huts, so presumably these were minimally furnished.
- Standard issue cooking utensils were taken. It was not stated whether the bivouac cooking would have been an individual or communal activity. There is no reference to their bringing any of the Battalion’s cooks with them, though with about 15 of them I would have thought one or two could have been spared if they were considered necessary.
- Each company would arrange rations with the Messing Officer. Apparently a Company Quartermaster Sergeant had this role. He was part of the Headquarters Company.
- Mail would be forwarded with the rations. (The M.O. and the Sanitary Man would probably appreciate this, as they were there for the duration.)
- Each company would be responsible for its own ammunition requirements, drawn from the Battalion’s Weapons Training Officer. I found it more difficult to trace this officer’s position within the Battalion. However, I found someone with this title who had the rank of Captain, and therefore the best candidate for this role was the Officer in charge of ‘Operations & Training’ who was part of the Battalion Headquarters.
- Unfortunately for me, the safety regulations to be complied with by the Officers Commanding were not given in the diary. Likewise, the process involved with the completion of a certificate relating to unexploded shells.
- All Companies were to bivouac in the ex-Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers hutments at Old Forge Barn, Grid Ref: 789283. There is a barn of this name immediately to the north of the village of Falmer. To confirm this I needed to locate the Grid Reference on a map. Fortunately for me Peter Hibbs’ website helped me understand I was looking for a Cassini to National Grid converter (I have to admit that I found John Penny’s conversion formula confusing). The best I found was the Co-ordinate Converter at FieldenMaps.info. From Peter Hibbs I knew that the square was ‘wQ’, so the full Cassini 6 figure grid reference was wQ 789 283. This generated a modern grid reference of TQ 35350 09296, which rounds to TQ 353 093. This centres nicely on Old Forge Barn, Falmer using the excellent free maps website of the National Library of Scotland.
The row of three buildings under the trees to the north west of the Old Forge Barn look interesting. Fortunately there was a planning application in 1979 recorded on the Lewes District Council website. This included a detailed plan of the site.
I love it when a plan comes together!
Appendix D, which detailed their training activities, generated more questions than answers;
- What was a ‘weapons training circus‘?
- What was involved with ‘individual field firing‘?
- ‘Individual Split Second Shooting Competition‘?
- ‘Firing All Weapons, P.I.A.T.[anti-tank weapon], High Angle (Demonstration)‘?
- ‘Fieldcraft‘ (similar to that described in the Home Guard Manual)?
- ‘Swimming’ (Falmer Pond is only deep enough for paddling so where might they have gone – if in the sea, were all the beaches mined)?
If anyone has information about such training exercises, and/or manuals, etc. I would be very grateful.
Meanwhile, I have successfully found the ex-REME huts in Falmer where Private Keneric Wilson would have spent his last night before his fatal accident. I still hope to find more information about the location of his accident. The results of my follow up visit to The National Archives will be given in my next blog post.