Major-General John Michael Watson Badcock, MBE

Royal Corps of Signals

My full name is John Michael Watson Badcock. I was born 10th November 1922 in Nazareth in Palestine, which is slightly unusual.

How did you come to be out there?

Right, my father was a gunner in the first world war and he fought in A..(?)  army from Egypt up to Syria up to the end of the war, well up to the end of that campaign anyway. Having done that he found himself in Cairo as secretary to the Balfour Committee which decided on the future of mandated Palestine. Having done that father was a gunner in the first world war and he fought in A..(?)  army from Egypt up to Syria up to the end of the war, well up to the end of that campaign anyway. Having done that he found himself in Cairo ashe thought it would be sensible to join the colonial service, which he did. And therefore, became part of the mandate, the administration, in Palestine. His first posting was to Nazareth. It so happens that my grandfather was GoC of Egypt at the time, he had a daughter called Doris, and my father and she got on very well together and they got married and they were given a house in the quarter on a hill outside Nazareth and I was born 10th November. My mother died seven days later. In those days there were no such things as antibiotics and she died of septicaemia. So, my father was left with a one week old baby in a foreign country. It so happened that my grandfather had another daughter, called Joan, and she was in India at the time. She came across from India to look after me, on behalf of her sister. She and my father got on very well together and so they got married. So, my step-mother is my aunt. That is the origin of that family.

When did you move back to England?

I moved back to England seven years later when I went to the Preparatory School in St Peters, Seaford. I then lived with my grandparents who lived in Finchampstead in Berkshire and the only time I saw my parents was once a year. They came home on leave in August and the following August my summer holidays were spent in going out to Palestine which took a week, and that in itself is a story! I never saw my parents from 1939 until 1946 because they remained in Palestine and I was serving in Europe.

Do you remember the build up to WW11?

Very well! In 1939, in August, I was out on holiday in Palestine with my parents, in other words eight weeks, the school holidays. Of course, I had to leave a week before in order to be back at school on the right day. My parent were a bit worried about my going back the usual way which was by boat from Port Said back to Southampton because the outbreak of war looked fairly imminent at the time and they thought it would probably be better if they flew me home. So, I took off from… it was the only time I had flown below sea-level, not many people have, this was in the days of the old flying boats, the Imperial Airway flying boats, they landed on the Sea of Galilee, which of course is 700 feet below sea level, and then flew to Cairo, Brindisi, Bordeaux, England. So, I came back that way.        The opening of war, by this time I was at Sherborne at school, I was a boy at Sherborne from 1936 onwards actually but the 1939 war broke out and life changed a bit with rationing, ration books, sparse clothing and all that sort of thing. We were bombed at Sherborne, I remember the sirens going and we had to be in the cloisters underneath the chapel, and one of the bombs dropped about as far away as that fence there and the whole building shook. But to a boy of 16 or 17 it was quite exciting. We all said, “Hooray!” the school will close down and we will all go home but not a bit of it, we had to grind on and so on.

At that time, I was in the OTC, the Officer Training Corps, which most people were, and I was a drummer, a drummer boy in the band. I found that, as such, I had a very good idea of tempo and beat. All my forebears, including my grandfather, were in the Indian army Ghurkhas or something like that and I think my grandfather expected me to join the Ghurkhas. I had no such intention as I would only be there as so-and-so’s son or so-and-so’s grandson.  I wanted to carve my own way in life. I was going to go up to Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, to read engineering and then, of course, when the war broke out things changed a bit. They closed Sandhurst and the army introduced a new system which was that they were very short of  (?) for the Sappers, Signals and Remi.  And the idea was you took an exam and, if you passed, you were trained as a soldier and you were then sent up to one of the universities for six months. In our case it was to read electronic engineering. So, I left Sherborne thinking what regiment should I join and, since I was a drummer, a good idea morse, da-da-da-dah-dah, I found out it was a signals platoon and we had a number one set, that won’t mean anything to you, except it was a wireless set that usually lived on the back of a mule in India and that was the communications for the school ATC. So, I knew something about signalling having been a drummer and also part of the signalling platoon, so I joined the Royal Signals which was how I came to be. I joined up, I wasn’t called up. I went to Catterick, Signalman Badcock, and then about another 60 similar people we were put on to the Reserve and sent up to Oxford. In my case I went to Worcester College, Oxford where we had six months of pretty concentrated teaching on electronic engineering.

So, one lived a pretty normal under-graduate life, except that the University realised that we had already been trained, to a certain extent, in military affairs. They were short of fire wardens at night, we were told that two of us would be on duty as air raid wardens in the laboratories, which was fine.  So, we enjoyed our life up there. I rowed for Oxford and various other things. All of of a sudden one of our under-graduates was sent down and this caused absolute mayhem because we ourselves had been fairly relaxed about life. One bright chap went to the professor’s desk and found that he had a little black book with all our names in it. Beside each name were little, black dots in pencil. The person who had been sent down had three black dots. The number of people who volunteered for night duty increased immensely because we then all went to the book and if we had two we rubbed the last one out. He must have been one of the most forgetful professors who couldn’t remember what he’d written in his book or something! No one else was sent down, life returned to normal and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

At the end of the six months I then went to an OCTU, an Officer Cadet Training Unit in Aldershot, where I was trained to become an officer and I appeared as a second lieutenant in due course. It was pretty tough on the whole, in it’s day. From there one started one’s army life proper. I was commissioned in February 1941.

I was a war service officer, I wasn’t called up I volunteered. Not a regular or anything like that. My own intention was to serve on and make it my career.

What was your training like?

The officer training at OCTU was the same as Sandhurst these days but much shorter, only six months. You did just about everything that an officer was supposed to do, the same as you do at Sandhurst these days. I was one of twenty people, I think I was the youngest in that group of twenty. I was 19 or 20, something like that. Most of the others were rather older. I survived that, two of my intake were dismissed. They were both young and couldn’t stand the pace I think. I was commissioned from there and found myself posted, as a Royal Signals Officer, to a 35 Tank Brigade in Penrith in Cumbria – which was a bit of a surprise. I wondered what a Tank Brigade was doing in Cumbria. This Brigade was an armoured Brigade, 35 Tank Brigade. Unusual! It had one Tank Regiment, one RTR, Royal Tank Regiment, and two Durham light infantry battalions who had been converted, or were converting, to become armoured. In other words, fighting tanks. This was an experimental brigade. The idea was that the brigade would be armed with tanks and, instead of having a gun on the turret, it would have a searchlight. The turret was constructed in such a way that, instead of the gun there was a vertical slit. Behind the vertical slit there was an arc lamp, with the power supplied from the engine. When the arc lamp was lit it shone onto a steel plate, a very highly polished steel plate. From there it was reflected out through the slit. So, the net result was, if you were looking down on it from above, there would be a tank with an arc of light in front. The idea being a) to light the way forward b) to blind the enemy but it also caused a converse triangle in the dark, an umbra. In that dark area would be infantry and sappers picking up mines, which couldn’t be seen by the enemy because they were blinded. My role there in the signal platoon as a Lieutenant in the Signals Squadron was – we were re-fitting all the tanks and training all the armoured personnel in communications. Because, part of the system was that all of the lights must come on, and go off, at the same time. Secondly, no one tank should illuminate another. So, there was a very strict procedure for moving forward and this was practiced just outside Lowther Castle in Cumbria. Of course, the reason for it [being there] is that it was just on the limit for German reconnaissance planes could fly over to see what was going on.  How many spies there were amongst the civilians I don’t know because it was a pretty unusual sight. All they saw was the sky lighting up and going off every now and again, lighting up, going off. They must all have wondered what the hell was going on, inevitably, many of them found out of course.

The whole idea was that it should be processed and used. Initially we were going to go out to Africa, but when the war out there began to go our way, we then became involved in the landings on the North coast of France. In the signals, we not only trained for the lights to come on and go off together, that was the purpose of it, but then we said, right, the human eye retains a picture for so much of a second. If you turn the lights on and off just short of that you actually blind the individual. The eye can’t take this sudden flash, on, off, just as it’s losing the sight of the first one. It can be quite painful, so, this added to the blinding of the enemy. The art of it was, of course, to get the whole regiment, in a regimental advance, to get every tank, to come on and go off at the same time. In those days you didn’t have software and things like that, it had to be done by a person turning it on and off over the radios. The idea was that they would be used in the landings in France.

There were three of us in the squadron. There was a Major, who had a wife, and he found lodgings somewhere which left a Captain, who was a bachelor and myself likewise to have accommodation. In so happened that our squadron was located in Greystoke Castle. The conditions were such that all the men were in Nissan huts in the grounds of Greystoke castle.  The actual castle itself, the owners had said officers only, so Gordon and I lived inside the castle which was enormous! Very cold, no heating, riddled with dry rot. So, we selected one bedroom, which was enormous with a high ceiling, and we put up our camp beds in there. But we did enjoy dining in the banqueting hall at a six foot table on compo rations. So, our life up there was great fun actually in many ways. We used to do motor-cycle training all over the Cumberland hills. We must have climbed Helvelyn god knows how many times getting soldiers fit. One knew the area quite well by the time we finished.

However, the war moved on and, of course, Africa was no longer a war theatre. So, the Brigade was disbanded because they reckoned there wouldn’t be a use for this system in the landings – which was a great pity. The second thing was they couldn’t afford to keep it going in terms of the number of tanks involved, they wanted armour for everything else. At this time 79th Armoured Division was born, so to speak, and it was tasked with all the ‘funnies’ quote unfunny. All the funny armour, all the special tanks – the tanks that floated, the tanks that carried flame throwers, the tanks that carried things for filling in ditches, boulders, kangaroos and so on. They all had these funny names like crabs and so on. What 79th armoured division did pretty much was to take over the whole of Suffolk. All the civilians were removed, the only people allowed were the farmers. All the replicas were built, all the defences of Europe were built. All the German defences on the north coast were built. The idea was that all these special machines would be developed in such a way that they would be able to become overcome the German defences. I was then moved down to Saxmundham in Suffolk, into 79th Armoured Division or Signal Regiment. When I arrived, it was ’44, and D-Day was beginning to loom and all these highly modified armour were located in many different places and included American and Canadian armoured regiments as well, all training in different places. Some were up in Scotland, down in Lini..(?) In Wales and Portsmouth and Southampton. So, the division had to develop them, train them, equip them and do the research required as to what they could do and couldn’t do. The divisional commander was a Major General called Hobart, Percy Hobart, who was actually a retired Major General but he was an expert in armour. They made him the GOC, General Officer Commanding, of this division and he would travel a 1000 miles a week possibly moving from one site where they were doing training for this and that and so on. The nearer D-Day became the more concentrated was all these affairs.  It was decided that it wouldn’t go as a division itself – all the components, the various parts, would be attached to assault groups up and down the coast. The Americans would have their tanks and so on, the Canadian area, the British area and so on would all have their own slice of 79th Armoured Division under Command to help them get into, and fight on in POR. Therefore, the Divisional HQs itself would not go, probably, in the first month or so into Germany. But the Divisional Commander, and his immediate staff officers, would have to be there because he insisted on being somewhere close to where he could advise on how these various troops should be used and maintained. So, he formed a tactical HQs and that had to have it’s own communications obviously. I was selected by my CO, as a Lieutenant, to command the signals element of this tactical HQ. My CO was a person called Lieutenant Colonel John Athill who had been fighting in the desert, been badly wounded and invalided home, had a slice of metal let into his skull. He was a bachelor, very strict, his predecessor had been sacked by the General anyway, and he had an uncanny thing. He smoked a pipe, he had seven pipes and smoked one every day, and when he got agitated or things weren’t going his way he would bite chunks off the stems of his pipes, it was a most peculiar thing. But one feared him and respected him.  Somehow, I managed to get on with him and I survived. Anyway, eventually our turn came and we were stationed in Horsham at the time Doodlebugs were flying over. One evening, we were all stationed at a house in Horsham, and if you could get things like eggs and so on from the local farmers you could have them for breakfast – they weren’t on the ration. Somehow, Jimmy and I got hold of half a dozen eggs, and we shoved them on the windowsill, and one of these damn V2s went off, bust all the windows and broke our six eggs! You could hear them coming, if you could still hear them you knew you were safe but as soon as that sound stopped and the motor cut off and it came down – they weren’t terribly accurate but they were aimed at London and various other places like that.

Anyway, eventually we arrived in France and Germany. I landed at Wiesteram. That in itself was peculiar because, in 1939, my French wasn’t too good at school and my mother came home on her own and said, “I’m going to take you on holiday in France. We are going to stay with a French family and there will be no English spoken. We shall stay with them for four weeks and this will improve your French.” So, we travelled over, this was just before the war started, in the Queen Mary overnight to Cherbourg and then went to this little village on the Normandy coast called Wiesteram. Would you believe it! My name is Badcock as you know, and we lived with a Monsieur and Madame Le Coq!

They were a lovely family in a two-storey building. My mother and I hired bicycles and cycled all over Normandy up to Bayeaux and round about the place. I took a lot of photographs and that was the end of the holiday in ’39. To my surprise, there I was at the end of ’44 and the public was asked, “Has anybody got any photos of the north coast of Europe?” I had taken a whole lot, I am a very keen photographer, I had taken photos of the canal, the bridge and everything. There I was landing at the same place that I had been.

Anyway, it was pretty unpleasant out there, we were subject to air raids and all the rest of it. Our job was to maintain communications for the GOC, with all the various operations that were going on. So, I found myself going back to Breakout from Bayeaux, the Falais Gap, which was an experience in itself – very unpleasant. We were down in December 1944 when the Germans launched a surprise attack on the Americans. We had to go down because some of our specialised armour went down there so I had to provide the communications for that.  The attack on Boulogne, a 1000 bomb raid on Boulogne, which I watched from where the present supermarket is looking down over the harbour. I found myself in all the places where there was action. We moved up all the way through Normandy following the advance, up through Arnhem. Then, to cut a long story short, we found ourselves up on the Elbe. And it so happens that our HQs was only half a mile away from where Monty had his HQs. I happened to go over, because there was an ordnance and some communicating, on the morning that Baron Von Runstedt appeared outside Montgomery’s caravan to conduct the Armistice arrangements. From then, on of course, the Armistice came. I by this time had already applied for a regular commission, which I then got, came back to England and that was the end of my war service.

Can you sum up your overall experience of the war?

As a young man, when our brigade was disbanded we were mortified because we had all hoped we were on the cusp of going out to Africa – finishing off Rommel in Africa and that sort of thing. So, it was exciting, you lived your own life with your friends and your pals. When we were up in Penrith we formed, because there was no such thing as entertainment, most places were closed down and you couldn’t have lights at night, so we formed our own concert party and we used to go around all the villages. We called ourselves the Black Berets. We would go to village halls around the area and put on a concert for the locals. We enjoyed ourselves and they seemed to enjoy it as well.

Actually, it was very funny, we lived, as I said, in Greystokes so Gordon was a bit of a rogue, he had a girlfriend on the side I think, in fact I know he did. So, I was left on my own and the idea in those days was that there would be dances arranged in the Town Hall or somewhere like that, and all the girls would appear in the Town Hall and you, always in uniform, you weren’t allowed to be out of uniform. So, went in in uniform and all the girls would be lined up at the side and you’d come in and select one and hope for the best and you danced! In those days things were, conditions under which boy meets girl were much stricter than they are today. I formed quite a relationship with a girl who was great fun and we used to meet when we could and when I was posted away that was the end of it basically. But many, many years later, I was a Brigadier and I was commanding a brigade down here (points out of his window at Canterbury). Our duty then was to exercise battalions who had come back from Germany and amalgamating them. I organised an exercise on the Isle of Skye. It was to be an amphibious exercise. The battalion was to land with helicopters and landing craft and that sort of thing. I did a recce and anyway, the exercise took place and we went over there and it’s the only time, no the second time, that I’ve ever appeared in the Daily Mirror. There was a banner headline in the Daily Mirror saying, ‘Skye father says baa, baa to Brigadier’.  My staff officer said, “The Post Office had just rung up. There’s a letter addressed to Brigadier Badcock, Isle of Skye and they think it must be you, so I’ve sent someone to collect it for you”. As you can imagine, when the letter arrived there was much interest in it to see what it said. Inside was a piece of purple paper that said, ‘Dear Brigadier Badcock, I think you must be the Badcock that I knew in Penrith’. This was in 1970 something.

What were your day to day living conditions like?

Well, if I wasn’t at Greystoke Castle I would live with my grandparents in their house in Finchampstead, Berkshire. He was a retired Major General. In those days I had two cousins who also lived with them because their father was serving somewhere or other. The three of us used to live with them occasionally. Well I was there permanently, they came in the holidays sometimes or in term time. The three of us, my grandparents used to say, right we don’t want to see you until this evening. We’d get on our bicycles and cycle off. We were very keen on beagling. We’d think nothing of cycling 12 miles, join the beagles, run around the countryside until the evening and cycle the 12 miles back again. This was just before the war. During the war I was a Homeguard. Because, when I was at school I was part of the OTC, and during the holidays I was expected, because I had a military experience, to join the local LDV, Local Defence Volunteers which then became the Homeguard. So, I had a rifle, which I kept in the house with a tin hat and so on, this was in the holidays of course, when I wasn’t at school. My duties were three evenings a week, all night watch from the top of the village church where I could see out all around.

We had ration books, so you only had 8oz of butter a week, whether you were at school or at home. I can’t remember what the meat ration was but it was pretty low. You’d see searchlights, air raids going on. Travel, all the trains would have no lights on and all be blacked out.  Cars would have shields on the headlights so the beam never went upwards. I was allowed to drive my grandfather’s car, which was very nice. He allowed me to do that. I had my own motorcycle, I bought it for £10 which I took up to Oxford with me. We used to make our own sports, we used to have mixed hockey. When it froze, like it did this last week, we played ice hockey on the local ponds and lakes. But, pretty carefree, as a young person wold be.

When you were in the throes of the action did you lose any comrades or friends?

Killed? Shot? Yeh. I lost two, three soldiers basically during that time. Actually, the worst time that I had was, we were in the Falaise Gap, that probably doesn’t mean much to you. The Germans had got trapped into the North West portion of France, the Americans had surrounded them and we squeezed them. There was a little gap and the only path out was through that gap, almost for a complete army. Meanwhile, because it was so difficult, they got shelled, they got bombed, attacked and our own troops were constantly…. When you went into that area, I think it was the smell, I’ve never forgotten it. It wasn’t a human smell, OK, you see bodies all over the place and bits and pieces in the trees and things, but it was the cattle on their backs with all four legs standing up with their entrails coming out. The smell! It was difficult to bury the lot. Everywhere there was wonderful German equipment that had been abandoned, they couldn’t get it out. So, we helped ourselves to German bikes and things like that. But, from the point of view of death, one’s seen quite a bit of that.

So how did you cope with that both personally and as an officer?

I think in those days, we had a totally different concept. You were told to grin and bear it. You never, you tried never, to show one’s emotions. There was no question of crying or anything like that. If you did you were, you know, a cry-baby. In fact, any soldier that turned that way you would begin to think, look out he’s on the way! You would have to try and succour him. Yes, I’ve seen death, but since then, I’ve seen a lot more too.

I was never wounded, fortunately.

I didn’t marry until after the war.

Where were you at the end of the war?

I was in Germany. VE night was extraordinary. Because our Division Commander, he had first of all written the history of the Division, he had got his staff to write the history write up to the end, to VE Day. He had it printed, by the Germans, in Hamburg and he had a copy for every single man in the Division. But that was even VE Day –  I’ve got a copy down there. They are probably worth quite a bit. Now, that night we built a most enormous bonfire and every, single man again, one of our armoured regiments had found the naval rum store in Hamburg. They confiscated the lot! And again, every unit got a share of the rum. So, we had this vast great bonfire on Luneburg Heath and bags of rum – we were all as tight as tics. That was the conclusion of my army service in Germany.

After that you came back to England?

Yes. By this time, I had become a regular officer, I did a few weeks training and I was put on a boat on VJ Day, Victory over Japan, and sailed out to India and Ceylon. That’s where my regular army life went on from there up to 1977.

Interview ends.

Share This

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

More To Explore

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *