Brancepeth Camp

Inside that fateful envelope the would-be serviceman's future was decided for him in stark black and white.

'There was a warrant and everything, man. A rail warrant, telling you where you had to be. Sid went down to the Midlands somewhere and Lloyd went to Aldershot. And I went to Brancepeth. I was lucky in a way. The 10th of December 1941, that's when you had to be there. There wasn't many of us left by then.’

Until then the war, the defeat at Dunkirk and desperate struggle during the Battle of Britain had had little effect on local morale.

'"They're just letting him take it all and then they'll bray him back out!" Ginger Dawson! Old Ginger Dawson down the pub.' Ginger Dawson was the manager of the Railway Tavern, near the colliery line. '"Why, they're just letting the buggers come on, man!" He had it all weighed up! There were two or three big disasters that month. I think it was one of the big battleships went down.'

December 1941 wasn't an auspicious time for the British war effort. The battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse were both sunk by Japanese aircraft on December 10th. The famous aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal had been sunk by a German U boat on November 30th. The surprise Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor took place on December 7th and Malaya was invaded by the Japanese on the same day. The Russians had been pushed back to the outskirts of Moscow and in the Western Desert the Afrika Korps was on the Egyptian border.

'So, we just went into the old castle at Brancepeth. They told you everything you had to take with you, shaving gear and stuff like that, just a little case or a bag. Of course, you got kitted out when you got in--everything.

This was No 4 Infantry Training Centre, the Regimental Depot for the Durham Light Infantry., Brancepeth Camp which became operational in September 1939. Until then the depot of the DLI had been at Fenham Barracks in Newcastle.

The July 1946 edition of the Regimental Journal of the Durham Light Infantry, the first to be published after the war, contains a fascinating account of the development and importance of Brancepeth camp in 1939-45. A couple of brief extracts follow:

'The Durham Light Infantry Training Centre was organised as follows. Headquarters with four recruit companies, each of nine platoons of thirty recruits. A specialist company, where selected men were sent for training in either MT, Signals, Mortars or Carriers.

‘There was also a large Depot Company that held trained soldiers until they were posted to battalions or elsewhere. The strength of this company often reached a thousand men in rations apart from more who were detached on employment elsewhere.....'

So, by December 1941, Brancepeth was a well-oiled machine for the mass production of trained infantrymen.

NEXT: First Day in the Army


Above: the Railway Tavern in Thornley. Nicknamed ‘Ginger Dawson’s after its landlord, William Dawson, the pub was closed in the mid-Sixties and, like much of ‘the bottom end’ of the village was subsequently demolished. The young man in the foreground is Ginger’s son, Bob aged 17, which would date the photograph around 1930. Below are Ginger and his wife Meg Dawson on the occasion of their 50th Wedding Anniversary and at the bottom is a close-up of the Railway Tavern sign. Click on the images to enlarge them. Photographs courtesy of Ginger’s grandson, Bob Dawson.