Ullswater: The Commando's.
No, this is not a computer game, it is of real Commando's of WW2. Our area of Ullswater was a training area for Commando's preparing for the assault of Europe in WW2. The trainee Commando camp was up in Martindale and one of the training areas was between Howtown and Pooley Bridge. One of the training techniques was mountain and open country assaults and our fells and narrow strip of farm land between the fells and lake Ullswater was ideal terrain.
Peter Embley and I would follow behind each exercise as they moved over the farm land practising assault and retreat manoeuvres. The Commando's mainly used .303 rifles and blank cartridges along with thunder flashes and Very light flares and the crack of the rifles making the battle manoeuvres exiting. As we followed behind the "battle" we found this very realistic, but we also had another purpose in mind.
As the "battle" moved on we would search the previous battle area and the hedge rows looking for spent brass shells from the rifles and would occasionally find live rifle shells carried by the instructors. We also picked spent thunder flashes and Very light cartridges and examined them and would sometimes find an unexploded dud. The soldiers were supposed to pick up all spent ammunition but as usual some were missed and the ones we found were our prizes.
The thunderflashes were used to simulate grenades and were filled with a "banger" and magnesium for the flash. We would open up the unexploded duds, later we would take out the magnesium and put it in a heap with the banger in the middle and lay a trail of magnesium to act as a wick, light it and run, we would revel in the bang we made. If we had found a dud Very light flare we would take out the active flare "cake" and include that in our big bang and this made the bang and the flash much more spectacular.
All highly dangerous but we boys at that age, we considered ourselves bullet proof. I had one narrow escape, I had spilled a small quantity of magnesium and accidentally dropped a lighted match and whoosh the magnesium flared up in my face. I lost my eyebrows and my face later went brown and peeled. I went home and told a pokey, we had made a camp-fire as we often did and the fire had flared up as I bent over it. I was more careful with thunderflashes after that.
The experiment which still sends a shiver down my spine was the time we found a live .303 round and we decided to explode it. We wedged the round in a crack on the top of a fence post with the bullet end pointing at an angle to the ground. I held a nail to the detonator end and at arms length hit the nail with a rock. The round went bang, the bullet hit the ground and the casing went flying. We found the brass casing and it was split half way down its length. We looked at one another and we said , something like “did you see that”? We had another live round but we didn’t explode that. I think we scared ourselves.
The remaining round I kept in my pocket and I remember showing it to some of the older boys at school and swapping it for something, I cannot remember what now. I soon realized we weren’t the only boys who followed the Commando's looking for lost rounds of ammunition, dud thunder flashes and Very flares. Other boys from school did it, too.
One day when we had finished our lunch at the church hall. as we came out to return to school we saw a small army truck standing outside the nearby Post Office. 2 or 3 older boy's ahead of us were peered into of the the open back of the truck. Inside was ammunition, Very flares, thunder flashes and more. One boy jumped in and grabbed some of the thunderflashes and passed them out to his mates. After a while a shout came from the Post office door and 2 soldiers appeared. The boys grabbed their booty and fled.
Later in the afternoon an army officer called at the school and explained what had happened. Miss Patterson brought the officer into the classroom and he made a short speech to the class. In essence he said that if the ammunition was returned nothing more would be said about the matter. In his explanation, he continued, there was a war on and everyone was too busy to call in the police and have the culprits charged. I believe the stolen items were quickly returned and no further action was taken.
The Grenade Range
Just down from what we call Hadley's Cave, not too far from the nearby wood and its low-side corner, was what we boys called the ”Grenade range”. The wood, (it was in a felled state in the early days of the 1940s). Here the ground was a slight slope only, unlike the nearby ground, which was starting to steepen, going up the fell. A large trench, oval in shape had been dug in the stony ground to shield the commandos from the exploding grenades. The stony earth had been piled up on the lip of the “throwing” side of the trench to increase its the height.
All around the trench were pot holes from the exploding grenades. We kept clear of this area. In the back of our small boys minds was the unspoken thought “what if there was a dud unexploded one”, missed when clearing up after the exercise and “just waiting for us”.
Now, looking on Google Earth the wood in question seems to have regenerated and sometime later looking on Google Maps, a separate entity of maps, I found the wood did have a name. The name of the wood is Austerstone Wood.
Ullswater: Sea Training.
Just up the road from us towards Howtown was a large empty mansion called called Ravencragg. Here the mansion had been taken over by the government of the day for use as a Royal Navy training establishment. The teen-aged boys, I suppose would be 15 years upward. I'm not at all sure what their training was exactly for, but to make a guess I would say it would be for the Royal Navy. We would often see the boys on the lake practising their seamanship with boats which closely resembled lifeboats or maybe cutters.
At Sharrow Bay we, by this time had left the cottage and moved into the lodge at the main gate entrance. The cottage was now empty, shortly a man and his wife moved in and I noticed he wore a uniform, a naval uniform which to me resembled a petty officer's uniform. My wife Patricia's brother was a Royal Navy chief petty officer during WW2 and the uniforms were similar.
The man was employed at Ravencrag and would be, probably an instructor. One day I overheard that the man had asked Nelson's permission to build a boat were the hounds dog kennels were. These unused kennels were from the days when Mr Nelson was Master of the Ullswater Hunt. Sometime after this permission was granted. Part way through the building of the boat we were invited by Mrs Nelson down to see the progress of the boat. The man gave us an explanation of how it was built using steel plate(with rivets), the size of the boat and other things which I forget now.
As I write this I am puzzled why the boat was being built. Why the man had been allowed to build the boat. Why he had been allowed to dismantle the dog kennels. This present early morning as I write I came up with what I think may be the answer.
These were ship building engineering students who at the end of their training would go to sea as ships engineers? How ships were built was part of their course training. Ravencrag mansion was not the ideal place to demonstrate ship building techniques. Ravencrag was built on a small piece of flat ground with rising ground to one side and the rear, with the road to Howtown on the 3rd side. Whether steel boat or ship, steel building causes a noisy environment and if close to a study environment is far from ideal. So that is my best guess.
I don't remember seeing much of the Ravencrag boys but I do remember, vividly, seeing one of the boys carvings. It was on a tree on the Howtown road, not too far from Pooley Bridge. There was a row of smooth barked trees, Beech trees, I think. The row of trees started at about opposite Elderbeck Farm gateway and continued at spaced intervals down the hedgerow towards Howtown for a short way.
Some lines had been cut in the tree bark with a knife. At 2-4 day intervals more lines and curved cuts would appear, slowly a picture started to emerge from the cuts. One day I saw the finished picture. It was a side view of an American Indian's life-size face plus wearing full headdress. Coming down the road on my bike I would sometimes stop and gaze at the picture and marvel at the lifelike picture the boy had done.
In the year 2000 when visiting the UK, my brother John took me up to Sharrow Bay for a nostalgic visit I thought of the Indian head carved into the tree trunk and asked John to stop. As we came up to the row of trees I immediately picked out the tree. I clambered out of John's vehicle. As I crossed the road towards the tree, at first I could not see the carving. Had I got the wrong tree? I glanced past the tree to the next tree, I started walking towards it; no there was nothing there, the bark was smooth. I started to walk to check the previous tree to the one I was so sure of. I stopped and took another glance at the tree I was so sure of and then stared intently, I thought that is silver coloured lichen I see. I moved closer into the hedge as far as I could and scraped the lichen away and the dirt underneath. With my finger nail following the black line and as I kept scraping I came to missing bark, twisted bark and then newer bark from the tree trying to reproduce itself. I stopped what I was doing and a thought crossed my mind, if I do clean the carving up, all I can do is make it worse. Best thing I can do is leave the Indian head carving alone and let nature take its course. As I write this the year is 2010 and I am 78 years. I last saw the Indian Head 12 years ago, in the year 2000. I would be about 10 years old when the boy did the carving.
John sat patiently in the drivers seat waiting for me.