The geographical background to the Brigade

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The core of the Brigade was, of course, the three Infantry Battalions – all initially of the Durham Light Infantry. The original Territorial Battalions of the DLI, the 6th, 8th and 9th, which together eventually formed 151st Infantry Brigade within 50th Division, were based across the County as follows –

6th Battalion – Headquartered in Bishop Auckland with a recruitment area also covering Weardale, Crook, Spennymoor and the villages in that vicinity.

8th Battalion – Headquartered in Durham with a significant presence also in Chester-le-Street.

9th Battalion – Headquartered in Gateshead and also recruiting from Chopwell, Crawcrook and Ryton.

As each of the duplicate Battalions began to be established they operated for the first few days of the War alongside their “first-line” comrades, but the War Diaries describe in some detail the moves of location which took place almost immediately as 151st Brigade was sent south, preparatory to being included within the British Expeditionary Force, and the “second-line” Battalions assumed the responsibilities for tasks such as Civil Defence support.

Detailed locations

The details of exactly where which unit, or parts of those units, were located will be found within each individual War Diary record. In many cases, premises were taken over as headquarters and billets which were public buildings, such as schools. Frequent changes of location took place as other units were mobilised for their early War tasks. It will be appreciated that the infantry component of the Brigade – all there was at the initial stage – was expected to cover a range of duties throughout the whole of the County, a challenging task for a unit of this size with minimal transport and facilities.

Employment in the early days

One of the Brigade’s first key roles was the guarding of identified vulnerable points, in conjunction with the 41st National Defence Company, headquartered alongside the Brigade in Chester-le-Street.

The nature of those vulnerable points, again set out in detail within the War Diaries, is self-explanatory, though many readers may not be aware of the importance of those locations in 1939.

Specific guards or groups of men were allocated to tasks in the early months of the War which can be easily understood – such as mounting guard over a consignment of ammunition on the Sunderland dockside. Others are less easily explained – such as the provision of a fatigue party to the Prisoner of War Camp at Windlestone Hall (a satellite camp of the well-known Camp 93 at Harperley) at a stage in the War when Axis prisoners must have been very thin on the ground. Investigations into this have drawn almost a complete blank, despite the efforts of the Birmingham University custodians of the Eden Family papers, who were courteous and helpful.

One allegedly unique task for the Brigade at this time was the point Anti-Aircraft defence of North Sea ports by Bren teams based on the decks of local trawlers. Each team of two Light Infantrymen had one Bren Gun, a thousand rounds of ammunition – mixed suitably for anti-aircraft work – and a Motley AA Mounting.

When this task – the only known occasion when Light Infantry served on trawlers - was discussed with a local Veteran of the Maritime Artillery, his immediate reaction was to say – “Yes! Had you never heard of Churchill’s Pirates?”

At the same time as carrying out these various roles the Brigade was training hard to bring men up to “trained soldier” standard, including absorbing the July 1939 Militia Intake and spending time on qualifying shoots at the Whitburn Ranges – a windswept location with which the author is very familiar – but that is another story!

Demography

Generally speaking the Territorial Infantry units recruited from their local vicinity, assisted by the presence of Drill Halls at Company and Platoon level throughout the County. Engineers and other more specialised units were located in the more urban areas, and therefore had a greater pool of eligible men to draw upon. Each unit would have conducted its own recruiting drives, including displays of vehicles and weapons in the Market Towns throughout the area. It was such a display in Crook that attracted the young Vane Dyson from Wolsingham – whose sole aim, as a keen motorcyclist, was to learn to drive a Carrier, an ambition he more than succeeded in achieving.

The key fact is that these men were locally based and that therefore the Brigade started life as very much a North-East unit. Former Regular soldiers who either volunteered for the Territorial Army, when the growing emergency demanded the expansion of the Force, or who had a continuing Reserve commitment, and were called back on mobilisation, were generally from the area, even though they may not have been originally in the DLI.

Indeed, the analysis of Regimental Numbers carried out as part of this history illustrates clearly how many Regiments were represented, within the Brigade, on mobilisation.

Civilian background

With the exception of those Reservists, or old soldiers, long enough in service to have had their full attestation details included within the Enlistment Books of their Regiment, we have little information on the background, education, employment history or skills of the men recruited.

I had hoped to find out what sort of jobs recruits had before volunteering or being conscripted, and, for example, how this affected their choice of unit, or appropriateness for a commission.

With the exception of | a study (which I had hoped would act as a microcosm of the Brigade), the dearth of information on recruits meant that this could not really be pursued.

Recruitment process

As mentioned above, the manpower of the Brigade came largely from the existing Territorial Battalions of the DLI, together with Reservists, the Militia Intake, and, I believe, some Regular soldiers posted in, but the process by which the enlarged Battalions, swollen in numbers by the earlier decision to expand the Territorial Army, split each into two is not at all well documented.

Broad statements do appear, such as.... "all trained and experienced men being posted to the first-line Battalions", but that is shown to be not completely accurate, as at least some trained soldiers and NCOs were allocated to the second-line units and probably became the Section Commanders and Platoon Sergeants of the new Battalions. One Veteran told me...."We were just told to stand on this side of the Drill Hall, and that was that as regards which Battalion you were put into”.

Work is still underway to try and identify Officers and Men allocated to particular Battalions, but this depends on the information contained within War Diaries – and on this subject that is relatively sparse.

What is clear is that, following the declaration of War, and the establishment of the duplicate units, many inter-unit transfers took place, and continued to do so throughout the War. This included men moved to less demanding, or more specialist roles, either specifically – such as a teacher moved to the Education Corps – or as a result of a “weeding” process following medical examinations and fitness reclassification. Unfortunately, with some few exceptions, the names and numbers of the men transferred are not given.

The establishment of 1st Tyneside Scottish

The decision to allow 1st Tyneside Scottish – a Battalion of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) – formerly 12th Battalion(Tyneside Scottish) The Durham Light Infantry, to recruit directly to its ranks (from Tyneside in particular) immediately from its establishment on 1st February 1940, brought in many expatriate Scots – many of whom were former Regular soldiers.

Post-Dunkirk

The next real movement away from a total North-East base of Brigade manpower came when the Battalions were brought back up to strength after the retreat from Dunkirk. This process required the absorption of hundreds of transferees from other Regiments and Infantry Training Centres – illustrated by the influx of “foreign” Regimental Numbers.

This again is illustrated by 1st Tyneside Scottish as their large number of reinforcements came almost entirely from Scottish Regiments, or from the Infantry Training Centre at Perth.

The reader will need to judge whether the dilution of the North-East base at this stage had any detrimental effect, or whether the new “Durhams” rapidly absorbed the culture of the Brigade and effectively became honorary North-Easterners. Veteran interviews would suggest that this was the case.

More Information

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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