R A Wilson
March 1939 seems a good time to begin, for it was about then that speculation was at its height - which age group would be called up under the shortly to be passed Military Training Act. The 21-22’s or, in other papers, 18-19’s were most commonly mentioned.
In April or perhaps it was early May, I went indoors after cricket practice to be greeted, “It’s you!” by my mother.
I treated that remark with caution, for it had been made several times before and always accused me of a misdemeanour, so I guardedly said, “What’s me?” and learned that the 20’s had to go.
Having always been keen on games and fitness and pretty fed-up with my job, the idea seemed attractive enough, so much so, that I refused an offer from a friend who said he could fiddle me into the T.A. whose members at the time of the announcement were to be excused.
Whatever my parents’ feelings were, they controlled them.
June the 3rd, a Saturday, was the day we were told to go to the local labour exchange to register, despite there being different times for different surnames - A first and WYZ last - my other two friends and me all went together after cricket.
We decided to join the R.A.F. and answers in the ‘House’ had assured everyone that, this time, all the boys would be sent to serve exactly where their skills would be most useful. None of the “ ’ere to ’ere, infantry, ’ere to ’ere gunners, ’ere to ’ere sappers,” as had apparently been the case in the previous war.
The chap at the desk turned his eye on me and I answered all he asked, including “Yes” to matric when he enquired which service.
The next of us hadn’t passed that exam so, apparently, the R.A.F. wouldn’t have him, so I spoke up saying that they’d not have me either. We had ideas of serving all together. The Army then, for all of us.
About the time the other two received their calling up papers, I received a memo instructing me, as I wished to join the R.A.F. to call at a post office and collect a form. I replied that I didn’t want to join the R.A.F. so would they kindly get on with calling me up for the Army, which on the first draft they didn’t. Shortly afterwards though, I went to the Dorsets, and have always been pleased and proud that I did so. The other two, meantime, had gone to searchlights, when upon the outbreak of war they went separately, one to the infantry and the other to the R.A.S.C. and shortly thereafter, since he could drive, to France.
Prior to being called up I’d had a medical and an interview at Mitcham Road, Croydon. For all I knew of the Army, the interviewer could have been a Brigadier or a Lance Corporal. The chap who did the medical seemed likely to have been a doctor, for at least he said “Cough” in the right place.
The Brig. or Lance Corporal was quite a friendly chap, the only time for ages that I was to find such a trait in either.
On learning of my mathematical abilities, he said, “Trigonometry, eh?” adding, “The Royal Artillery, how’d that suit?” I said it would suit me fine, then he mused a bit and added, “Or perhaps the Royal Corps of Signals.” As I didn’t know there was one, I said that too would suit me fine.
The train to Dorchester was filled with young men with small suitcases and neat civvies. If there’d been a station at Dorchester, Oxon, many including me, would have tried that place, since nothing was said about county, but there wasn’t, so we tried Dorset and were right.
It wasn’t long before all were in conversation, the ice being broken by someone who asked, “You called up mate?”
Soon it transpired that not one of us had even heard the word infantry at our interviews, but were all destined for some corps or another.
The train arrived at Dorchester in the early afternoon, a bit later than the 10 a.m. on the calling-up papers, and we were soon enveloped in our first Army sausage machine.
The stream of raw material, us, passed along, answered our names and were given the first of the massive numbers we felt certain to forget and never have. The sausage skin, a Sergeant, Corporal and Lance Corporal, sawed off thirty men, wrapped themselves around and marched them off.
I found myself with twenty nine strangers and, generally speaking, so did everyone else, in the ancient barrack-room on the second storey of a three storey block. Washing was by cold water outside, showers there must’ve been, where I can’t remember, nor can I remember the latrines, which is surprising, for generally they smelt unforgettably. There weren’t any beds either.
Having dumped our cases in the approximate place our beds were going to be, the N.C.Os - now more sheep dog than sausage skin - hastened us off, first to collect three objects remarkably like scaffold boards and two trestles maybe six inches high. These also, were planted on our chosen spots and off again, firstly to collect a palliase case and secondly to stuff that object with straw from an enormous pile, being warned and generally unheeding the advice, not to stuff it too full. The palliase was dumped on the boards, then off again for blankets, three, those were folded in approximately the right manner and were placed in about the right place and off once more.
With an apparently expert glance, a store man dished out shirts, vests, pants, socks, trousers, jacket, hat and boots, P.T. kit, hussif, hold-all, ten thousand bits of webbing and a kit bag, into which the whole lot was stuffed.
Then back to the barrack-room to dress up and feel and look like a clown. Some of the uniforms did fit where they touched, but all the denims were made for a man ten feet tall. The vests and pants were, generally speaking, left in the kit bag and civvy underwear retained, otherwise the rest was put on and mighty tickly it was. The serge was service dress and the ritual of rolling puttees had to be learned - more difficult in the Dorsets than most - for they had to have three ‘V’s, one above the other in front and the tape still finishing precisely in line with the outer seam of the trousers. And all the rolls had to look even. Puttees, until the knack was learned, were the very devil, either too tight, so that the calves were soon painful or too loose, when they collapsed in slack rings around the ankles. The trousers were drain pipe, but as fashion was then for wider bottoms, the tailor, soon to be known as the ‘dersee’ would, for a fee, put a gusset in the lower inner leg. It made the appearance better when walking out and the rolling of the puttees harder.
In a surprisingly short time and with aid of a bawled, “one stop, two stop, three,” to help the timing, the squad was standing to attention and at ease, advancing and retiring in line, moving to the right or left in column of threes, ordering, sloping and presenting arms, fixing bayonets, easing springs and, for inspection, port arms’ing. Reversing arms had to be learned for a funeral and saluting was learned right at the start. It was needed for collecting pay. But one had to be careful not to salute the R.S.M. who, like the officers was dressed in superfine, and was highly incensed if paid such an unwarranted compliment. Then we were laying aim with our rifles fixed on a tripod, at distant bushy topped trees (I never came across a tree in the Army training that wasn't bushy topped). Soon after, we were banging the cocking handle of a Bren gun back and knocking off magazines in response to, “Gun stops”, altering the gas regulator when, “Fires a few rounds and stops again”, was the cry and changing the barrel after firing ten magazines, the latter soon to be known as pans. Then we played with 2 inch mortars, flung grenades over a high-slung net and charged straw dummies with a fixed bayonet. We were supposed to growl when doing that, but I found it difficult not to laugh. Practices were fired with both rifle and machine gun. In the midst of all this, we’d left barracks and had taken up billets in local halls and skittle alleys, whilst really green rookies - just as we’d been barely eight weeks previously - took our places.
In billets, the grub was collected from the barrack cookhouse and when it rained, the fried eggs, cold and greasy, floated in water and the rissoles, always called by a not dissimilar name, were brown and white with spotted fat and reminded me of baby hedgehogs. But generally, it was all eaten.
Not long after war started, many organisations sought to improve both our minds and morals. Male Voice Choirs sang to us and when a free cup of cocoa and a bun were going, the troops sang too. In one case, much to the disgust of nearly everyone, for several hours before the ‘buckshees’ arrived. If it was free, it was certain to be well-attended, because for some weeks, we saluted for five bob and never more than ten. We were supposed to be on two shillings a day from when war started, the militia till then had been on one-and-six. From time to time, the Quartermaster read out the equitance rolls and also explained just how we all came to be in debt. The major cause was barrack-room damages and with pained simplicity, he explained that we had not only to pay for the glass we broke, but naturally enough for the piece which replaced it. In civvy-street, he would have been a good con-man, for he gave every appearance of believing what he said.
Then our service dress, all bright with shining buttons and numerals, was withdrawn and battledress replaced it. Our barrack days would be over the next morning and the Platoon Sergeant said, with a pleasant grin, “You’re improperly dressed, Corporal!” I hastened to look at D.R.O.s and there it was. So once more, with several others, off to the ‘dersee’.
I left ‘Ginger’ Pope with regret. He’d been our Platoon Sergeant for the second of our two month spells and he’d taken much trouble to see we were well-versed in the field skills he’d had to teach us and he was sorry to see us leave. If you’ve spent time and trouble teaching men and getting to know them, it must be sad to see them go. He told me quietly, somewhat later, “I’d have taken you blokes anywhere.”
Because I’d been promoted, I also left those I’d joined and been with for four months or nearly five, which seemed a long while. And I wasn’t to see any of them again until the war was over and they came back with 2 Div from Kohima, Imphal and Burma.
‘E’ Company, in a new camp with wonderful huts but muddy roads, held those trained thus far and taught them to advance with armour, patrol and make reliefs by night and much else.
D.R.O.s (Daily Routine Orders), were studied as if our lives depended on them. It was only later that we realised they had. We were all waiting for posting. Mine came with a detachment to guard a petrol quay.
The detachment comprised a very young Second Lieutenant, who was Detachment Commander, one Sergeant who acted as Sergeant Major and Quartermaster Sergeant, three Lance Corporals and about forty men. The Lance Corporals were in turn, orderly N.C.O. next day took the parades and on the third commanded the guard. And when one went sick, the other two did alternate 24 hours guard and took the parades and were orderly N.C.O. on the other day. The men did guard for twenty four hours and were off for seventy two, though were on parade in those three days. We messed by courtesy of the military police and a right robbing lot of bastards they were thought to be.
After a few weeks, we were relieved, went back to barracks and straight off to Brighton to join the Royal Sussex.
Rumour had it and rumour was often more or less correct, that we were to train untrained men and Brighton seemed a good place to do so.
I was I.C. rear party and scrounging around the empty train with my little band, ostensibly to make sure nothing had been left behind but actually to avoid the march through the town with the main party, when a R.S. Corporal greeted me. He’d come to guide we of the rear, to the proper place. Almost his first words were, “I suppose you know that we’re off to France on Sunday?” I didn’t and said so, adding that since it was Thursday afternoon, it all seemed a bit hurried. “Oh,” he said, “we ought to have gone a fortnight ago.” I said I wished they had.
By going through paths a hundred men couldn’t take but ten could, we arrived at the drill hall a fraction before the main party and I was proud to see them march in, smart as anything, bang to a halt without one fractionally late stamp of boot, turn to their front and order arms with similar precision. ‘Ginger’ Pope, who had been I.C. party, reported, handed over and after we’d had a brief word left. I never heard of him again and can only hope he fared well over the next five years or so.
Soon I was in the office of ‘A’ Company Commander a marvellous man Captain V.H. Fallowfield-Cooper and as senior N.C.O. indeed senior soldier of the whole party was explaining that none of the draft had had embarkation leave promising such was my trust in them or my naïvete, that if they had a few hours leave (eighteen only were possible) they’d all come back on time. And they did.
We’d also been given our sections, mine was 7 of 7 platoon, and the privilege of bringing our sections up to strength by choosing from our own draft, Pluckrose and his two mates would have been my choice, with two others from the Forest of Dean, but it wasn’t to be, for on leaving the company office, who should be waiting but Jeff.
I suppose stories like this, it should be ‘no names, no pack drill’ but everyone has their faults and only one, whose conduct eventually was less than perfect will remain anonymous.
Pluckrose was a cockney, pure and simple, an excellent man and his two mates one from the Forest of Dean and the other a Taffy were also good.
Pluckrose and I had exchanged anxious looks and then cheerful grins on the first time we’d entered the N.A.A.F.I. for ‘char and wads’ on our second day in the Army. All then was apparently sacred ground and a man trod fearfully in all places. Pluckrose’s grin was a toothless-seeming one, it didn't improve his beauty, hardly anything could, but he was cheerful, spirited, reliable and obedient.
One of the other two, from the Forest of Dean, Niblett, was also a splendid man. Rumour had it, that he’d been brought up by his grandmother, and if so she’d done an excellent job. Probably when he’d left to join the Army she’s said “keep yourself clean and be polite” he scrubbed ’till he shone and called everyone “Sor”, stood massively still and lifted great weights.
Not that the first four would have been everyone’s choice.
was probably the most rebellious of the whole draft, in fact certainly was, and the
other three were little behind him. Jeff then greeted me as I left the office with
the others saying, “Corporal, can me and my mates come with you?”
“Come with me?” I said in horror, “Do you think I’m out of my mind?”
“But I’ll always be in trouble with the other Bawstuds!”
“You’ll always be in trouble with me!”
However, his pleading prevailed, perhaps I was influenced by his, “Well you know one thing, when we’re the other side and there’s trouble, I’ll always be with you.” And he was. Indeed, it didn’t perhaps make much difference who went where, for they all, with the exception of McCarthy and Rowden were soon to be killed.
Those who could, went home after duty Friday and returned mid-day on Saturday.
I met, quite accidentally, one of my guard detachment on East Croydon station, Jutsum, a round and jolly man, who was with his mother.
Soon he came over and politely asked, “Will you come and meet my mother? She doesn’t understand things. I’ve told her I’m nothing to do with you, but she still wants to meet you.”
I went saying, “Hello Madam” and, on a pretext, she got rid of her son and hurriedly said, “Look after him for me, he’s all I’ve got, his father was killed in the last war.” I just had time to say, “Oh yes ma’am, I’ll see he’s alright” before he was back. We resumed inconsequential talk for the next two or three minutes before the train came in. I didn’t keep my promise, for he was killed too.