Collecting Information

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How did I set about collecting the information to support the research?

I began with making brief notes of the anecdotes my father had related to me over the years. Some of these were very specific as to place, personalities or events, others less so. These were listed in what I understood to be their chronological order, so that I had a framework of reference, and a crude timeline, against which to test other sources.

Generally speaking, I was reasonably successful in finding evidence to support his tales and that was gratifying. That researched evidence often provided specific dates or places to add to the generality of his stories – a good example being the Prime Minister’s short visit to Iceland Force in 1941, an event in which he was involved, and, similarly, the visit of the C.I.G.S. to the Devon area in the Summer of 1940.

As a regular visitor to the DLI Museum I had many conversations over the years with its then Curator, Steve Shannon, who was unfailingly helpful at all times, despite the paucity of items within the collection relating to 70th Brigade. Similarly, searches through the DLI material, held at the County Record Office, produced little or nothing by way of 70th Brigade references, but that did not prevent the staff, especially Gill Parkes, from being of positive assistance, even if all they could offer was a sympathetic ear to my complaints about the lack of Brigade Archives.

War Diaries were of prime importance as a source of information on the activities of the Brigade and its component Battalions and supporting units.

I initially, after some basic on-line research, and several telephone conversations, spent two intensive days at The Public Record Office in Kew, followed by one at the Imperial War Museum’s Reading Room, documenting material related to the Brigade. Staffs at both these establishments were very helpful and particularly sympathetic to the fact that I had travelled to London from the North East, and therefore was not, like many of the researchers in both buildings, a local visitor. This led to material being got ready for me in advance and, without breaching protocols, up to the maximum scale permitted.

The immediate personal impact was the expenditure of several hundred pounds on the photocopying of the material available. It became clear that trying, especially from such a significant geographical distance, to decide what sections of the War Diaries and other files were worth having was a non-starter and the only reliable approach was to do the assessment of the files on site. After those intense days of almost speed-reading I requested, paid for, and received promptly from Kew, complete copies of relevant War Diaries and, from the Imperial War Museum, chapters of relevant books, copyright permitting.

What became immediately obvious was that significant parts of both the Brigade and the individual Battalion War Diaries – essentially the whole of 1942 and 1943 - were not filed or numbered where one would expect to see them, and consequently they were not available for examination at Kew on that first visit. Subsequent conversations with William Spencer, the renowned Military Specialist at Kew, clarified that those particular files had been wrongly referenced many years previously, probably when they were first acquired, and that consequently they did not appear on computer searches. His work to correct what was apparently a known problem was by then well underway, and he subsequently contacted me with the file references I needed for later visits.

One can speculate, perhaps generously, that the paucity of references to the Brigade in the existing Regimental and other Histories may have been due, in part, to the absence of those files which were, for almost sixty years, thought to be “missing”.

A week spent in the Black Watch Museum in Perth yielded access to a copy of the Tyneside Scottish War Diary, which I was able to begin transcribing, though again the available copy, which had been privately purchased by J L R Samson as a photocopy from Kew and then bound at his expense, was missing 1942 and 1943.

The content of the War Diaries varied enormously, and the presence or absence of expected Appendices formed no recognisable pattern. It was only when I read the Perth copy of the 1TS Diary that I realised that units, particularly when in the field, were required to provide a weekly state of their manpower strength and movements, including a list of Officers by name and appointment. None of those returns were included in the DLI War Diaries for 1940, for example, though they would have been most helpful.

At the other end of the spectrum of detail, files did include copies of such documents as Operation Orders, for use if Iceland were invaded for example, and exercise guidance notes for the approach to be taken when assaulting Normandy bunkers heavily defended by minefields and other obstacles. Appendices showing the scale of issue of camouflage material appeared more than once, as did vehicle states and accounts of weapons and ammunition scales. In many cases the daily entries give only an outline picture of unit activity or occurrences, though, again, allowing cross referencing to be done with other information sources, where these were available.

Later visits to Kew were assisted greatly by the further research on the supporting units associated with the Brigade – each of which, of course, had their own War Diaries requiring analysis – and the relaxation of the rules at National Archives which meant that documents could be photographed, and the images stored on computer. Visits became a hectic orgy of digital photography, image transfer and battery replacement, followed at home by many hours of titling and referencing of the thousands of page images!

The list of units to be followed up was assisted materially by access to material on the Orders of Battle – several of which had been put together for Wargamers, rather than Military Historians – but which nevertheless strove for accuracy.

Any omissions of units associated with the Brigade from my endeavours is entirely down to errors on my part, although, in my defence, typing mistakes on distribution lists lead to an inability to definitively identify certain outfits at some periods. Any reader who has knowledge of a particular unit which I have missed is urged to get in touch, so that the omission can be rectified.

When it came to identifying those who had served in the Brigade, I had believed that my experience as a Company Pay Clerk in the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve – serving from 1970 to 1974 on attachment, firstly, to A (RWF) Company of the Welsh Volunteers, then A Company of the 3rd Royal Welch Fusiliers, when that unit was established through expansion in 1971, and, finally, B (4th Border Regiment) Company of the Northumbrian Volunteers - would be especially relevant. I was, of course, reasonably familiar with the personal details held on 1970s Company Payrolls and Mobilisation documents.

Reckoning, somewhat naively, that, given the importance of monetary records, the equivalent papers must have survived from the 1939-1944 period, I was sure that the creation of a database of those who had served with the Brigade would be largely a matter of processing those details. Clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, I was well off target in that assumption. The payrolls – representing so very many RAPC hours of work – had been long destroyed, and other ways of collecting the data had to be found.

From the Imperial War Museum, after discussions with the Oral History and Books Departments, I obtained transcripts of personal diaries relevant to the Brigade’s activities and sections of books covering the War in North West Europe. Several conversations with the well-known Oral Historian, Peter Hart, a regular and popular speaker at DLI Museum events, and an enthusiastic supporter of the work of the North East War Memorials Project, were especially helpful, and his guidance as to how to search for the material that would be most useful to me was invaluable, as well as a great time-saver. Indeed, his first words to me, when I approached him about my task on one of his regular appearances at the DLI Museum were “did I ever interview your father?” Sadly, he had not, but would have been more than happy to do so, had the occasion presented itself.

Most helpfully, these exchanges led to me finding a copy of “Harder than Hammers” by Captain Whitehead, a brief history of the 1st Battalion Tyneside Scottish produced in 1947, in the IWM’s collection. This volume had one particular additional benefit – an Appendix listing both a Roll of Honour of casualties and a list those who had served with the Battalion, including their home addresses current at the time of writing. This, which had been compiled, I believe, from the records of the Regimental Association, became a key factor in my attempt at developing a database of Brigade members.

My activities with the North East War Memorials Project brought me into contact with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and I was able to obtain a list of Brigade casualties included in their records, at least in respect of the three individual Infantry Battalions. It is a sobering thought, and one familiar to family historians, that it was much easier to obtain details of men who had been killed in action – often including family information – than it was to identify their surviving comrades.

The decision by the Ministry of Defence to discard the Regimental Enlistment and Discharge Books, on the grounds of pressure on storage space, and the availability of individual soldier’s service records, led to a howl of protest from Regimental organisations. The result was that the Regimental Museums were offered the books and, in the case of the DLI, this offer was immediately accepted. After a short period during which the cartons of volumes were stacked in the Curator’s office at the Museum, they were transferred to the County Records Office for professional storage and microfilming. I was fortunate in being able to access the books, which contained; a list of Regimental Numbers in numerical order, the names of the men to whom they had been issued on enlistment, and annotations of what happened to those men, including transfers to other Regiments or Corps.

Readers may not be aware that, during the Second World War and in the period leading up to it, Regimental Numbers were allocated in large blocks to the various Regiments and Corps. The Durham Light Infantry, for example, used the numbers 4435001 to 4523000, while the Black Watch used 2744001 to 2809000. In most cases a man retained his original number, allocated at enlistment, regardless as to where he was transferred, though exceptions did occur. As conscription began to take hold, men were issued with a General Service Corps Number, rather than a Regimental Number, and this then followed them regardless of where they were posted.

The annotations against the names in the Enlistment Books included dates and details of units to which men were transferred and their records forwarded, dates on which they became Prisoners of War, dates on which they were killed or died, and finally dates on which they were transferred to the Reserve or discharged – including the relevant King’s Regulations paragraph covering the circumstances. This allowed me to identify immediately those men who were transferred to other Regiments – such as the soldiers of 12th Battalion DLI transferred to the Black Watch when the 1st Tyneside Scottish was established – and those who were moved to other units in Autumn 1944 when the Brigade was disbanded. While this allowed a reasonable deduction to be made that these men, so identified, had been part of the Brigade, the crucial omission, understandably – given that these were Regimental and not Battalion records – was any reference to the particular Battalion to which men had been posted. This meant that I could not always be certain that I had captured every name with a 70th Brigade connection, though the vital importance of the enlistment books as the prime source of name and number could not be over-estimated.

However, the annotations in the Enlistment Books of those made prisoner, died in service, or killed in action, did allow a check to be run against casualty records from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the key reference work “Prisoners of War, British Army, 1939-1945”, published by J.B. Hayward & Son, in association with the Imperial War Museum. I was able to pursue a number of enquiries arising from inconsistencies which this comparison threw up.

Similarly, I was able to compare the list of implied Tyneside Scottish soldiers from the DLI Enlistment Books against the list included within “Harder than Hammers”, which helpfully included Regimental Numbers as well as names and ranks.

An early lesson, and one well known to family historians, is that records such as I have described are not error free, regardless of the time or effort taken by their compilers. While genealogists are very familiar with the problems, for example, of Census data in which people have falsified their ages, thus confusing and muddling family trees, the military historian at least has the basic comfort of the unique Regimental Number, especially relating to Second World War service. Even with this sacrosanct personal numerical identifier, which every old soldier of my acquaintance has been able to rattle off without a moment’s pause, issues arise – generally those of mistranscription, leading to duplications of names with apparently the same number.

Errors in transcribing initials are also common, to which the availability of the Regimental Number is often the immediate solution, but I also encountered several errors and duplications in the 1st Tyneside Scottish Roll of Honour, and I am indebted to Mr Tommy Smyth, Black Watch Archivist, for his untiring help in clarifying which numbers and names correctly matched. Not for nothing did this fount of Regimental knowledge have a Black Watch Pipe March composed and named “The Archivist” in his honour.

A further complementary approach was to analyse closely all the reference material, War Diaries, oral transcripts and so on for mention of individual names, ranks, Battalions and personal roles and appointments. Even the listing of the names, for example, of the various football teams in the Battalion Newspapers produced in Iceland added to the databases and confirmed the 70th Brigade affiliation suspected from the initial review of the Enlistment Books.

Queries were also thrown up when casualty details were compared with those held by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and I must acknowledge the patience and interest of the Commission’s staff when such anomalies as I found were put to them. One early success was for the Commission to agree to change the description associated with the main Dunkirk War Memorial, to clarify that the 4605 men commemorated thereon, who have no known grave, included the names of those who had died later in the War as Prisoners of War in German hands – a greater number than might have been supposed by the casual enquirer – but who had been captured during the Dunkirk campaign.

A later success was the Commission’s agreement to amend their records to show that the late Lt. C. B. Mitchell of the Black Watch, who died from wounds sustained when his Headquarters was shelled in mid-July 1944, had indeed served in the 1st Tyneside Scottish for some considerable time as the Battalion’s Intelligence Officer. The proof of his role came from the Field Return of Officers, filed within the War Diary for the Battalion – material not previously made known to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Another casualty was listed on the Commission’s database with no family information – a not unusual occurrence – but one which is corrected within this work, as his entry in the Regimental Enlistment Book shows that he was an orphan when he first joined the Regular Army, but identified the name and trade of his late father, listed his birthplace, and named his aunt as next of kin. By the time of his death – nearly twenty years later - it may be that she was also deceased, leaving no family member to provide details to the Commission for their records. Thanks to the Enlistment Book entry, he is no longer without his own ancestry and can be traced to a family tree.

War Diaries were also invaluable, especially for gathering the names of Officers within the Brigade – particularly where the weekly Officer State Return was filed with the Intelligence Summary, as was the case for part of the sequence of 1st Tyneside Scottish War Diaries. One minor exception was the single page appendix in the Brigade War Diary for 1st January 1941, during the spell in Iceland, which listed all the “other ranks” working as Brigade HQ staff on that date. There, in the centre of the page, was listed Pte R B Dixon, Driver i/c. I was pleased there was no-one nearby in the National Archives Search Room when I found that particular document.

When I studied the list of those who served in the Tyneside Scottish I was immediately struck by how many of the home addresses given in 1947 were in South Wales. While there were transfers in to the Brigade from Welsh Units, the implication was that this list of Welsh addresses was as a result of marriages having taken place between men from the North East, and local girls, when the Brigade was stationed in that area, which it was on several occasions. “Harder than Hammers” even made a point of including a mention of this phenomenon within the text.

My approaches to the Light Infantry Office in Durham (now The Rifles Office) and the DLI Regimental Association led me to a small number of surviving veterans, who were generous with their time, and honest with their memories – despite the pain some of these must have caused. Descriptions, for example, of the death of comrades were given in a matter of fact fashion.

I received no greater compliment about my research than from one veteran, when, my having spotted the distress a particular account was beginning to cause him, I offered to halt our discussion. He then said quietly…”That incident gave me nightmares for years. I’ve never even told my son about it, but you understand these things”. I felt humbled and extremely privileged.

It was rare for my late father to refer to such stories. He, like many old soldiers, preferred the more amusing and self-deprecating tales on most occasions, until, that is, our younger son was carrying out a G.C.S.E. History assignment. He had been asked to interview his grandparents about their wartime experiences and, at the time, all four were still alive. He gathered a wide range of material from his maternal grandfather, and both his grandmothers, about; service with a Searchlight Unit, work in an aircraft factory, munitions work inspecting aircraft armament as an “Aycliffe Angel” and domestic matters of various kinds and then arranged to interview my father. After a warning from me that there were likely to be delicate areas needing a light touch, especially around the Dunkirk evacuation, and not to cause him any upset, he sat down to conduct the interview, using a brief his class had been given by their History Master.

This school briefing sheet included some fairly blunt questions for the student to ask, such as...”have you ever shot anybody?” which, given Dad’s role as a driver, did not cause him too much difficulty, and to which he gave his usual jocular style of answer. Had the question been…”Have you ever killed anybody?”… the response might have been different – but more of that later.

When he was asked if he had ever seen a friend killed, Dad, after a short pause, proceeded to describe in detail an incident during the retreat to Dunkirk, when he and colleagues from Brigade HQ were forced to take cover in slit trenches in a wood, during an aerial attack by Ju 87B dive-bombers. The wooded area was also being bombarded simultaneously by mortar and shell fire. This was an event he had never previously described to me, other than in very general terms.

My father explained that he and a school friend from his home village were sheltering together in one of the small slit-trenches, when his friend received a direct hit from a mortar round. The quirks and vagaries of the resulting blast were such that, though Dad was severely deafened, he was otherwise physically undamaged, while his friend had simply ceased to exist, being vapourised by the explosion. When asked by our son about his reaction to this horror, Dad simply said … “My first thought was, what am I going to say to his Mum about what happened to him, if I get home?”

Despite the care I tried to take, and the various databases and spreadsheets I prepared, there was no realistic way in which I could claim that my list of those who served in the Brigade was complete – hence the opportunity for families to get in touch, check the listings, and forward to me additional details of those missed from those lists for one reason or another.

More Information

How the Brigade was raised
The Legal and Constitutional Background
The geographical background to the Brigade
Investigating the social background of the Brigade’s manpower
Creating the database of names
The use of War Diaries in the history
List of Abbreviations
List of Units
Home Service 1939 - 1940
British Expeditionary Force April - June 1940
Defending against Invasion June - October 1940
Iceland Garrison October 1940 - December 1941
Home Service and Winter Warfare Training 1942 - 1943
Pre-Invasion Training 1943 - 1944
Normandy 1944


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