In December 1939 Alan Alfred Whitehead married his childhood sweetheart Beryl Violet Whitehead. Five months later, in May 1940, Alan was “called up”. He wanted to join the Navy but he was told that because of his Grammar School education and his ability to drive a car he should join the Tank Corp. After demonstrating his patient manner and impressive driving skills he was asked to be a driving instructor and became a Corporal in the Training Regiment training Tank Corps recruits at Farnborough.
In 1942, whilst demonstrating schedules to visiting Officers, Alan let it slip that he had done the planning for the event, not his Captain. His Captain overheard this comment and ordered an instant transfer for Alan. The next day Alan was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and posted to Sandhurst to train Officers - his Captain was not impressed.
At Sandhurst, Officer Cadets were addressed as “Sir” and the Training Sergeants were addressed as “Staff”. Gunnery practise took place on Salisbury Plain. One of Alan’s jobs was to collect the empty shell cases at the end of the days firing practise. On one occasion a shell had miss fired and as the Sergeants were loading it onto the truck it exploded. Alan sustained injuries from shrapnel in his arm and his colleague sustained a broken leg. Alan spent the night in a nearby American Army hospital. The shrapnel was removed and Alan commented that he “didn’t feel a thing!”
Every week at Sandhurst there was a passing out parade for the Cadets and dignitaries often attended to watch displays and demonstrations of the equipment. These dignitaries included Churchill, Princess Elizabeth, Eisenhower and Montgomery. On one occasion, when Montgomery was visiting, Alan took the role of Instructor and some of his Sergeant colleagues pretended to be Cadets, to ensure that they put on a good show. Unfortunately, Monty saw through it and said; “Good show, but you couldn’t do that with real Cadets.”
Alan stayed at Sandhurst training Tank Corps Cadets for the remainder of the Second World War.
In later life Alan spoke about the desire he’d had as a young man to be a Priest in the Church of England but, he said, the war got in the way. When he returned home to his wife Beryl and their young son, Brian, he discovered that Beryl was struggling with nervousness and depression. She had found it stressful being a young mother with her husband away.
Realising that Beryl was struggling Alan put his vocation to the Priesthood to one side and took a job with the Co-op and ended up as Secretary of the North East Cooperative Society and was joint leader with the General Manager.
Alan spoke about sometimes feeling embarrassed that he hadn’t been a “proper soldier”. Although he took great pride in his role training Cadets, but he was well aware that many of them would never return home again once they had passed out and left Sandhurst to fight on foreign shores.
On Remembrance Sunday, 2011 Alan’s grandson had a chance meeting with a man who had been in the Tank Corps and remembered being trained by Alan on Salisbury Plain. Although the two old Tank Drivers never met, they were both pleased to hear stories about each other after so many years.
Alan’s life changed when he was called up to serve his King and Country in the Second World War. He sacrificed his vocation to the Priesthood to deal with the effects of war on his wife - and he did a good job - blessed with good physical health, Alan and Beryl celebrated their 70th Wedding Anniversary in December 2009.
Throughout his life Alan remained devoted to his family and to the Church of England. Although he never achieved his own dream to be ordained his son Brian is a Lay Reader in Durham Diocese and his Grand-daughter (in-law) is an ordained Priest in Derby Diocese.
R.I.P. Sergeant Alan Alfred Whitehead; Tank Driving Instructor, husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather and ALWAYS a Priest at heart.
By Chris Whitehead