Volume 1 – Chapter 16 - Part 4
There were two places in an army barracks where you could escape the constant discipline; one was the canteen though even there NCOs were set to watch the rank and file. The other was your billet but there also an NCO was given the job of watching over the behaviour of the lower ranks.
In this picture I am carrying out the job call ‘canteen cowboy’ riding herd over the lads off duty.
In every hut there was an NCO who had the job of keeping order and discipline, he was not usually a popular person, because after all the place where you slept was a man's home from home. Orders were not welcome in the place where you hoped to escape the army and let down your guard, where you could talk to your mates, and complain about the world in general. In my billet the senior man was a corporal Mellor, who was a powerfully built ex-coalminer, who was a bad tempered and unpleasant individual who fancied himself as a boxer. (It pleases me to recall that when Mellor fought in the boxing team, he was knocked out in the first round of his bout by a haymaker he never saw coming.) Like every other NCO he had perfected the art of avoiding his duty and so was rarely to be found when he was wanted, not that he would have been much help, because on the few occasions that he was in the hut, he would leave everything to me anyway.
Because of the way most felt about the way they were being treated, it was inevitable that one or two of the older men would try and kick against the discipline when it came from a young lad who was left to impose his will upon them without any apparent support. One night the situation came to a head when I told one chap that he had to do some work on his kit, which was not up to standard. He refused and I was placed in an impossible position, this was something I just could not accept. If I did not win this battle of wills I would lose all credibility with the men, and lose any respect they might have for me. Refusing an order is one of the most serious offences you can commit in the army, and I knew that if I reported the matter to the company office, the other lads would hate me for doing it. What was I to do? After some thought I decided to take my problem to a particular sergeant who appeared to be more reasonable than most, which proved to be the best course of action as it turned out. I explained my dilemma to him, and without hesitation he accompanied me back to the hut, where he explained what would happen if the occupants did not obey me. He did not shout or threaten, he simply explained that they could not win a fight against military discipline, they should realise that like it or not, the only thing they could do was obey orders.
Did I want to remain in a world that was so lacking in good values and the justice and fair play in which I believed? I had joined the army for 4 years with the colours, and for 7 years in the reserves, during which time I could be called up if I were needed. Could I see this sort of future as the one I wanted for the rest of my working life? I was beginning to realise that this life was not going to appeal to me, although I did not want to accept this feeling. Nothing I had done to date had worked out, and I had pinned my hopes on a career in the military. What would I do if it didn’t work? Right now all I could do was make the best of it and hope that things would improve.
In the meantime it was beginning to look like a crazy world I had got myself into, all the signs were that I would be better off out of it. In a literal sense I seemed to be among mad people, there was the evening when a heavy branch of a tree came hurtling down, nearly striking a colour sergeant who was walking along a path through the barracks a short distance in front of me. It had just gone dark and for that reason he was carrying a large torch, which he shone up into the tree. We looked up and could see the leg of a man sticking out of the dense growth high in the tree, so he called out: “Who is that?” and a voice replied “Animal.” The CQMS (Company Quarter Master Sergeant) with the torch demanded that the person in the tree should come down immediately, and down came a young man who turned out to be a bandsman from HQ Company. I was ordered to take the bandsman’s arm and between us we march him to the main building, where the Medical Officer was sent for. Before he arrived I was dismissed, but the rumours I heard later were that the musician was believed to be mentally unstable, and he had been packed off to the hospital.
Was it the stress and the strain causing these problems? I was certainly aware of it, though I wondered why a bandsman should feel it so much, and from what I could see there certainly appeared to be no reason why bandsmen and others such as officers should be feeling stress, yet a few days later I saw an officer behave like a total madman. Having a few minutes relief from my many duties I went to sit on a low wall around the rear of the parade ground where one of the other companies was on parade. An officer was inspecting the men, I watched him as he walked along the front rank examining their appearance, pausing from time to time for a closer look. Stopping in front of one man he ordered him to hold out his hands for inspection, which he did with his palms upwards. Then the officer ordered him to turn his hands over, when he did he pointed at them screaming out: “Dirty finger nails.” Then he leaned forward and seizing the recruits hand in his mouth, he began to bite fiercely on the offending fingers. It was unreal, like something from a bad dream, the officer continued to bite and everyone was frozen into immobility, including the unfortunate soldier who just stood there in an agony of pain. Finally the CSM (Company Sergeant Major) managed to free the man and both he and the officer were led away to whatever fate awaited them.
Later I heard that the officer was taken away for a mental examination, and the popular belief that did the rounds was that he was the only officer in the British Army who could produce a certificate proving that he was sane. I had always imagined that the army was the most down to earth and logical organisation in the world, but many things around me were indicating that this was not so. Where was the sense in letting a man lie bleeding on the parade ground, because nothing could interfere with a parade that was in progress? How could such a thing happen? It was a company parade during which the order was given to fix bayonets, then the order was given to slope arms. During this movement one man let his rifle arc too far away from him as he swung it around to his shoulder. The point of the bayonet caught the next man on the side of his face and ripped it open. It must have been the shock of it and the sight of so much blood gushing out that caused the wounded man to faint. Being too far away those in command may not have realised how badly hurt the fallen man was, and the men who were close were held in place by their discipline, which allowed no movement without an order.
I was fast discovering that there was no logic or common sense in the army, which was something I did not like at all. About once a week the RSM held a battalion parade, with about 1,000 men on the parade ground. Each company was led by its CSM and CQMS, and the whole parade was controlled by the RSM, who, being a small man would stand on the low wall around the parade ground. No officers were on parade, so the NCOs had no one to answer to but themselves. I have already described what a nasty little man the RSM was, and he reinforced this impression during his parades by screaming like a banshee and showing no consideration for the men what so ever. He stood beneath the shade of a tree, while the battalion stood out on the exposed parade ground in the hot Mediterranean sun. It felt like a life time that we paraded in the sweltering sun, at this evil little mans mercy, though I suppose it was not more than a couple of hours. He would drill us and march us up and down, and sometimes just let us stand at attention for long periods just waiting for someone to move without his orders. On one parade we were standing at attention waiting his next command, when on poor lad fainted and fell on his face. No one dare move and go to the fallen mans assistance, and would you believe it, but our tormentor then screamed out: “Put that man on a charge for falling out without permission.” It was unbelievable that anyone could behave that way, or be allowed to behave that way, by a so-called civilized organisation.
Today my understanding of events would give me a different perspective, but I write my memories as I remember them and I describe my feelings as they were at the time. This will, I hope explain to some degree how my actions were the product of my outlook on events as I describe them. I have to confess that as I write I begin to understand how the past unfolded and I begin to see more clearly the reasons I behaved the way I did, which is something I have never considered until now.
Some of my experiences were interesting and exciting and the time expended passed quickly, but the greater part of the time I served in the army was either unpleasant or extremely boring, which made time drag. Most of us were just small cogs in a big machine; we were of no importance as individuals so we were treated accordingly. When April arrived so did my 18th birthday, but that meant nothing to those around me, which is why I had little time to think about it, or celebrate it. Duties were coming thick and fast and I found myself totally committed for the reasons I have already mentioned. About this time it became our turn to be duty battalion, and just about every day for a month I found myself on some duty or other.
Mostly it was guard duties, some of which we did in our best uniforms, such as when we were guarding important building in the city. Others were guards we did on ammunition dumps, and other military installations, which were dirty and dusty places which required a lower standard of smartness. On these occasions second class battledress was the order of the day, and when the hot weather arrived, it was tropical kit we appeared in. The first time in our lives we found ourselves in shorts since we had been schoolboys. The duties we performed were not just formalities, they were a serious business, and at times we were reminded if this. Trieste was not a peaceful posting, on the one hand we had the Jugoslavs determined to take this important port for themselves, and to back their claim they had a considerable civilian presence living in the city and surrounding countryside. In addition Italy was determined to have the territory returned to them, and they had an even larger number of citizens in residence. It was a very valuable and strategic port which had been thoroughly modernized by Mussolini, who had stationed much of his navy there during hostilities against us. The Italians wanted us out just as much as the Jugoslavs did, and hostile attacks were common from one side or the other.
Trouble came to a head on May 1st (Communist Day, or as we would call it Labour Day) when much of the population rose in opposition against us. There was rioting in the streets which went on for several days, and for a while the situation looked really nasty. That day I was on guard duty at the Head Quarters of the British Forces in Trieste. BETFOR HQ was in one of the grandest buildings on the water front of the city, which had a great number of them in an impressive display, which stretched as far as the eye could see along the curved sea front. Many of these buildings were large expensive looking places which were superior to anything I had ever seen in the United Kingdom. They were clad in the finest marble, with floors of the same material that were polished to perfection, which required us to wear sand shoes, or what some call plimsolls, instead of our usual heavy ammunition boots with their regulation 13 flat headed nails in them to protect the soles from wear.
The active guards were on duty for two hours, which was followed by four hours resting, and the length of our commitment was 24 hours, beginning in the morning. The guard commander was usually a Sergeant, and his 2 I/C (Second in Command) was a Lance Corporal which was the role I played. The guard commanders were supposed to check the men on duty at least once an hour, and they would take it in turns to be on duty for two hours in turn. I was to discover that often the sergeant in charge would get his head down and show very little further interest in proceedings. For me this meant 24 hours of constant vigilance with no sleep, not an easy task. I could have put my head down if I had not been committed, but I was young and dedicated to being a good soldier, so the thought never crossed my mind. To provide a guardroom a corner of the foyer which was quite large, had been partitioned off with a light wall of wooden lathe to which had been nailed thin sheets of particle board. It provided some privacy but little else, but at least the off duty guards could lie on the camp beds provided and get some rest.
It was late in the evening and the light was just beginning to fade, when I set out on yet another check on the guards to make sure they were not asleep. I was up on the second floor when there was an almighty bang down near the entrance, which had me in full flight running to find out what had happened. The foyer was full of smoke and everyone was dashing about like a hive of demented bees. It may have been a weekend or possibly a public holiday, so the guards were the only people in the building, and with little we could do calm soon returned. It transpires that a car had driven up to the front of the building and a grenade had been tossed into the foyer. In such a large open space the blast had dissipated without much effect, and thankfully it proved to be one of the small largely ineffective Italian grenades, which can injure and kill anyone in close proximity, but which do little damage otherwise. One thing I did notice was that the fragmentation that hit the guardroom partition had been sprayed upwards, and there were no holes below about four feet from the floor. Everyone had been lying down on the low camp beds, which is probably why no one was hit by the shrapnel. A very lucky escape for us all and a benefit for me because it woke up the sergeant, who now decided he should take some interest for the remaining time we were on duty.
For the next few days we were all kept busy providing patrols around the streets and trying to keep the peace. Even some additional reinforcements were added to our numbers from the other battalions to cover the situation, and eventually calm returned to the volatile situation. Without doubt many of the local people had become really stirred up, which was unexpected to us because they were quite friendly most of the time. The Yugoslav section of the population were always looking for a reason to stir up trouble, this we knew, but most of the locals were Italian and they saw us as protection from the aggression of the Slavs. On this occasion it was clear that a large portion of the Italian people had taken part in the rioting, and we had no idea why this had happened. Later theories and rumours abounded, and probably the authorities knew what had happened and why, but as usual they did not bother to tell us the chaps at the sharp end.
One story that did the rounds was the one about the recovery of a number of Italian sailors whose bodies had been recovered from the wreck of a coastal steamer that lay just off the coast near Muggia. This ship had been sunk late in the war by a marauding British fighter bomber, and the deaths that had resulted had angered the locals. To make matters worse we had nearly caused more casualties when the recovery team were working on the wreck. Members of my company had been practicing with 2 inch mortars firing from a low cliff out to sea, where we had anchored an empty oil drum as a target. Well away to our right was a large floating crane which was being used in the recovery work, taking place on the ship mentioned above. After the practice had been going on for some time, a bomb was fired and the base plate of the mortar had slipped, which caused the weapon to slope over to the right. The missile went arcing off with what appeared to be deadly accuracy, and exploded against the steel work of the large crane, a shot we could never have achieved had we been trying to do it. There was a small hut on the floating platform and from it came several figures, they promptly dived into the sea and began to swim for their lives. Could this have been the cause of the local anger? I shall never know for sure, but I can say that if this had happened to us we would not have been pleased about it.
It is amazing how quickly people adjust to a change of behaviour when introduced to such changes, how quickly we accepted the use of weapons and the elements of danger they introduce to our lives. I watched a man try and shoot another and it did not concern me unduly, a state of affairs that would not have existed a few short weeks before. I was on another guard detail when I witnessed the incident, and once again I was in one of the magnificent buildings on the Trieste waterfront. This time it was the imposing offices of the Lloyds Shipping Company, where we were providing yet another of our sand shoe guards. Once again it was I who was doing the rounds while the guard commander took his ease, and again I had ascended to the second floor. It was late afternoon, and for a moment I decided to enjoy the sunshine and grand view of the harbour front, from the open windows of an imposing balcony that overlooked the curving promenade. Off at right angles from the main parade were a number of jetties where several American war ships were tied up. At the beginning of the jetties was a barrier which had a gate guarded by American seaman, who was armed with the standard American sidearm, which was the heavy .45 calibre Colt automatic pistol.
There were plenty of people about, particularly near the central part of the waterfront, where we were located. It was a good place to fish for squid which were popular on the local menu, and there were numerous locals fishing for them and proving very successful. It was interesting to watch their technique, which was to lower bait on a line, and then to pull the eager squid up before they could let go of the tasty morsel that had tempted them. Every fisherman had a stout stick or club with which they quickly dispatched the unfortunate cephalopod, before lowering the bait back into the water. I was not the only one to find these activities interesting, so did the American sailor who was guarding the nearby gate.
When one of the fishermen pulled up another catch only a few yards away from the sailor, he could not resist walking over to take a closer look. While he stood looking down, a passing pedestrian saw the open gate and decided he would go onto the wharf to take a closer look at the visiting ships. He must have been about 30 yards down the wharf when the sailor turned and saw him. I don’t know what his orders were, and the Americans were known to be gun happy anyway, but I could not believe it when the guard shouted and ran towards his post, at the same time pulling his pistol from its holster. The sightseer heard the shout and turning saw the guard running with drawn weapon, which of course put the wind well and truly up him. Realising he was in danger of being shot he also began to run further along the wharf, and by the time the sailor reached the gate the offender must have been at least 50 or 60 yards away. Without hesitation the seaman fired at the man but missed, but this shot was enough to make the running man realise that drastic action was necessary. Swerving to the right he headed for the side of the wharf with two further shots passing close to his speeding figure, then he was into the sea and swimming as though his life depended on it. The sailor came to a halt realising that his target had escaped him; he must have also become aware that his wild shooting was endangering other people nearby, and so he holstered his weapon. Meanwhile the lucky intruder had swum across the angle to the main promenade and was helped out of the water by some of the fishermen. What happened after that I cannot say because duty called me?