Evercircular: The Forces

Cambridge District Scout Archive

These letters between the scattered 23rd Cambridge Rover Crew give a snapshot into the roles they were given in the Second World War and their experiences.  Responses to casualties are also covered on another page.

See also Evercircular: Civil roles and WW1/WW2 under local History

The Army is well represented in the correspondents of the Evercircular.  Those in the Navy were at sea and not included and the RAF was a smaller contingent.  The 23rd had neither Sea Scout nor Air Scout patrols (initiated in 1941) and as such no leaning into a particular service. 

Many of those in the forces at the start of the letters, named correspondents and others, do not have their roles in the forces given, it being known.  Their location is given ‘Nobby is in Aden’ and everyone knows in what capacity.  Roles and Service are generally given at the point of being a called up or of change of role.  Some may be assumed by rank or are clearly known by address.

Of those clearly identified as being in one of the Services we have

  • Royal Navy      8
  • Army               15
  • RAF                  8

Another 9 are clearly on active Service in some capacity but neither the service nor the role is given.  ‘Out with the Auk’, ‘in Russia’, ‘on an Armourers Instructors course’.  Many others remain unclear. Some were in protected professions or roles or did not pass the medical, some were over age. A full list of names mentioned in the Evercircular, from the 23rd and wider afield, gives their military roles.

With (very) approximate numbers of in each of the Services given, assuming most of the unknown were in the Army and that we have slightly under recorded the number in the Navy, Cambridge Scouts appear to have been distributed roughly in proportion to the numbers in the three services.

Royal Navy

The members of the 23rd Cambridge, who went to sea in the Merchant or Royal Navy, were, by default, unable to participate in these Evercirculars.  This branch of the military and civil forces appears to be under represented in the Cambridge records generally and particularly in these letters. 

The Merchant Navy was not considered in the same light as the Royal Navy, not being a ‘fighting force’. It is possible that members who were in the Merchant Navy were left out of records; like the Royal Navy they could not contribute to these Evercirculars.  Although it had a higher risk of death than any other service and operated weapons for defence some, at the time, viewed it as an opt out.  The author’s father was sent to Coventry (not spoken to) by his neighbours when he volunteered for the Merchant Navy at 16, a good year ahead of his call up at 18.  These letters have no clear reference to anyone being in the Merchant Navy.

References are found to non contributing colleagues in the Navy and when members are at sea; Dirk Dunn minesweeping, Cecil (Army)(is in the) Suez Canal, Snowy (RAF) is at sea.   Going abroad was the end of a contributor’s involvement.

Ken Medcalfe joined the Navy as a signaller and his address was H M Trawler Hortensia, a minesweeper, the only vessel named.

Army

Most members went into the Army which took both what it could get and what it was given and presumably attempted to place them to best advantage. 

The RAF passed on those who failed their signals training to the army, presumably having no space or use for the less than capable; the Navy had no room for the less than fit at sea. 

Not everyone was suitable as front line troops, nor were they all required to be.  Ken North was accepted though of long standing poor health and later invalided out.  He was placed in the Pay Corps (Clerks in Uniform) as was Bob Oakman.  Ken was clear that this was not REAL soldiering.   Other roles such as Military Police (Traffic Control) which gained some appreciation for the work done, Anti aircraft (Royal artillery) and driving tank transporters as well are recorded alongside Bombardier, Gunner and Fusilier.

  • R Wallis                       Army                                       died
  • R Summerfield                        Royal Armoured Corps           died     (23rd not named in EC)

Royal Air Force

Rev Tribe, curate of St Matthews, became a Squadron Leader (the nominal rank of a Padre) and later we hear ‘William has gone off to the RAF’.  William Wolfe later reports 170 of 200 RAF signal trainees were moved into the Army, ‘swopped blue for khaki’; selected by proficiency this was possibly a national reallocation of personnel resources.  Conversely Bombardier Bill Carter transferred from the Army to the RAF to train as an observer.

The RAF does appear to be more active in training individuals for specialist roles and rejecting those who did not make the mark.

  • Sgt Pilot Frank Gigney (Giggs, elsewhere Giggo) is reported as being killed in a flying accident.
  • E W Carter (Bill) was killed, torpedoed having completed his training in South Africa
  • R Culpin                       RAF?    died     (23rd Cambridge not named in EC)

Comparisons

Bill Thurbon, on registering in April 1941, said ‘I don’t know whether to volunteer for the Navy!  I (have read?) what you all have to say about the RAF and Army’.

The comparisons between the forces by the correspondents are few, not least because of the lack of any correspondents in the Navy.  The Narvik Patrol was generally less inclined to light weight observations. It is possible that the Padres rank, role and personality did not lend itself to inter service comparisons

He was clear that the RAF was in strong contrast to the Army in that it did not move people around very much.  He was based in one place for a considerable period of time before Embarkation leave, long enough to plant potatoes and have them dug up by a bomb.  William Wolfe (RAF signaller) was moved more regularly but for individual training opportunities not unit relocations.  The number of address changes does suggest that the army moved units very frequently.

The Padre also started the benign topic on the origin of Browned Off as a term, maintaining (as does Partridge) that it was an RAF term that became general.

We do have a report by Arthur who tells of ‘a terrific argument between Snowy and Charlie (or Percy) Doughty about the respective merits of RAF and Naval signallers’, Snowy being an RAF signaller and Charlie being a signaller on a Corvette; and, presumably, also a twin.

Competition of another form was also recognised – ‘We have several Brylcreem Boys near us so there is plenty of competition at the dances held in the village’

Les Chapman and William Wolfe were in training as signallers in the Army and RAF at the same time.  They did the same course at much the same time and the differences in forces came to the fore, for example the RAF giving 14 days leave to the Army’s 7 at the end of the training.

Rank

Correspondents and those mentioned by name in the Evercircular are largely Other Ranks, a few come to be Officers. 

The Rev Tribe was a Squadron Leader, a nominal rank for a chaplain and he points out that he does not get paid at this grade.  Sidney Odell, a chaplain in the Army, is presumably in the same position.

Bill Thurbon wrote ‘Having heard various opinions of Officers (unclear) the force of Shakespeare “Discuss unto me, Art thou officer? Or art thou base, common and popular.” ‘ On this occasion he names the source of his quote. Within the correspondents there is no personal animosity between those moving between ranks, commissioned or otherwise.

  • Cecil got his commission
  • Mervyn ‘possibly up for Commission Course’ , and later at OTU (this abbreviation is either an error or , being Operational Training Unit, suggests preparation for action rather than Officer Training)
  • Eric Ayres                     Lt in the Navy ex 23rd

Stripes come and stripes go.  ‘Walter lost a stripe and is now a Bombardier again’ – he later regained it.  Holding the rank of Sergeant, or the equivalent, was not unlikely but nevertheless a point to congratulate.  Some roles did not permit such advancement unless you were a signed up beyond the duration of hostilities, such as Ken North in the Royal army Pay Corps.  Ken North refers to himself as ‘ten bob a week people’, that is the basic grade whatever the title given in that branch, later Clerk Gp C Class II

Roles

Only one role stands out across the services; it is notable that a large number of these ex Scouts became involved in signalling.  This may suggest that the Forces identified ex Scouts as potentially having this skill or as the consequence of other information gathered on enlistment; or that they put in for the role having some experience.

  • Snowy Oliver               RAF
  • Terry Chapman           Navy (signed for 12 years and going for signalling)
  • Charlie Doughety        Navy    Signaller Corvette
  • Les Chapman              Signals Corps of the Military Police (Traffic Control) had been Radio Mechanic pre war before training again in the army
  • Mervyn Thompson      Army Signaller
  • Gordon Russell            Fleet Air Arm  (another possible radio man)
  • William Wolfe             SignallerAC2 (Wireless Mechanic)
  • Ken Medcalfe              Navy    Signaller Minesweeper
  • Bill Carter                   Bombardier but switched to RAF as Observer (later Observer/ navigator) which required a similar skill set

Les went on to be in charge of a Radio locator on a gun site and was loaned to HMV and BTH radio works for a number of weeks (on army pay).  William and Snowy reported that the RAF sent those who failed the course to the Army.

Scouting in the Forces

Little is reported of Scouting when in the Forces.  Scouts tend to recognise each other by the skills they show, often in fire lighting.  Some find Rover Crew set up as in Aden (see Forces Bulletin) but often the irregular hours and uncertainty mean that they cannot regularly participate in a Group near their billets, certainly in the early training.  Ken North reports visiting local Scout shows but not engaging in regular meetings.

Scout skills in the forces

The benefits of having been a Scout before joining the forces are remarked upon.  Elsewhere Scouts report taking over compass training from the Sergeant, being more capable and in these letters the ability to make oneself comfortable is also stressed.

JWR Archivist Sept 2019