Volume 1 – Chapter 16 – Part 5
Most of the little time remaining after the duties previously mentioned had been performed, was devoted to the art of soldiering, and in particular the skills needed to become a good infantry man. There was of course the usual spit and polish, (a term that comes from the many hours a soldier spends doing just that, spitting on and polishing his boots.) the cleaning of brass buttons, and the application of khaki Blanco to the webbing which makes up most of the belts and straps with which a soldier festoons himself. Collectively this smartening up process was referred to as Bull, and much of our leisure time was devoted to it, especially in the infantry who considered it an essential part of the process of creating a state of discipline and blind obedience. Today one can become a well trained and efficient killer without this old fashioned procedure, but it has taken many years for the British Army to abandon the need to make men stand and be decimated by shot and shell without using the common sense they were born to save themselves.
The lengths we used to go to in our efforts to look smart and professional, it was a state of mind that took hold very quickly, and the image we had became essential to us. It was not long before new recruits were recognised by their lack of technique and expertise, and despised as a consequence. Old sweats and we all considered ourselves in that category after only a few short weeks, could be recognised for the opposite reasons, and were respected accordingly. It did not take us long to learn the tricks of the trade, such things as putting soft soap inside the creases in our uniforms, which held them in place after they had been ironed. The importance of possessing large sheets of stiff cardboard between which our uniforms were placed before putting them under the mattress on which we slept. How we envied the American soldiers because of the finer material from which their uniforms were made. I could never understand how the RMPs (Royal Military Police) managed to look so much smarter than the rest of us, until I joined them and discovered that they had tailor made uniforms that were manufactured from special Canadian cloth.
It was even possible to recognise an old timer by the way his trousers hung down, the raw recruit tucked his trousers in his gaiters and looked like a country bumpkin. The soldier who knew his business put weights in his turned up trousers so that they hung down straight and square. I can remember the envy we all felt when a regular of some years service showed off his trouser weights which had been made by threading 9mm bullets on a piece of fine chain. They were perfect for the job, and when the day came for him to leave the army, there was a considerable bidding war from those of us who wanted to, and could afford to buy, these superior devices from him.
For young fellows in uniform, image was everything and even smart drill was admired, although it did nothing to make a recruit a better fighting man. How we laughed on one occasion when we saw some RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) men trying to fall in on a parade and carry out what we considered to be basic drill. How superior we felt, and how readily we showed our scorn at their lack of ability. On the other hand I can still recall how impressed we were when a squad of replacements arrived to join us, showing great skill and technique as they marched into camp. These were men from the Cheshire Regiment who still had time to serve when their battalion had returned to the depot from Germany. Having spent some time training alongside German troops they had discovered and adopted the German way of marching. They did not march in an upright manner with stiff arms and bodies, they seemed almost to slouch along with the arms swing across the body, and when they halted they appeared to almost slide to a stop without the usual stamping which we had been trained to do. It all looked very smooth and effortless and we were impressed.
Another new recruit who made a great impression on us was a giant of a man who arrived on his own having been transferred to us for some reason we did not know. It was some time before we discovered why, and in the meantime we were very impressed with his competence as a professional soldier. We thought we were better than most, but this new man illustrated to us that there were others who were superior, our high opinion of ourselves was based on a lack of knowledge of how good others were. Our new recruit was in his late twenties or early thirties with some years of service in the brigade of guards. He was every inch a guardsman with their standard of training in every respect, which I quickly discovered when he was given to me as a replacement for the old timer who had recently departed. I can still recall the embarrassment I felt when this chap came over to me as I lay on my bed at one end of the hut, and coming to attention shouted out in a loud voice: “Permission to leave the billet, corporal please.” I mumbled something like: “Carry on” and he turned smartly and marched from the room. I lay on my bed and thought; this man would leave me for dead as a soldier, and his guards training makes us look like a bunch of amateurs.
For the first few days this immaculate ex-guardsman showed us what a real soldier was like. He was a veritable ‘Goliath’ in every respect, amongst us mere pygmies, and if I am to describe accurately our impressions, I must use one of those crude and disgusting expressions that are common among common soldiery: “He was built like a brick shithouse.” Then the day came when he was allowed out of camp, and our paragon of virtues turned into a raving maniac. My description of what happened is, I have to say, second hand, but my version is as near as I can make it to the truth. The guardsman, (which is the way I think of him, and therefore the way I shall describe him,) went into Muggia alone and headed for the nearest vino bar. It did not take him long to get drunk, and then he changed from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde.
We shall never know how the trouble started, but apparently our raging comrade became embroiled in a fight during which he maimed and rendered unconscious numerous other people. Before the mayhem was over the RMPs arrived, and joined the battle, and though armed with riot sticks they fared no better. With several of our military constabulary having joined the growing number of maimed and injured, the guardsman then decided to escape. Leaving the wrecked watering hole, he headed out of the village intending to return to camp, where he must have imagined he would be safe from those in authority. Drunk he might have been but he realised that the guard room would not allow him into barracks in a drunken or dishevelled state, so he hit upon a plan. He would take a fishing boat and using the cover of darkness, land from the seaward side onto the parade ground. Unfortunately for him and his plan, he was not able to completely disappear, so those in pursuit were able to anticipate his intentions. Arriving at the guard room in advance, they informed those on duty and the guard was turned out to receive him when he came ashore.
The story goes that once back in camp he lost his desire to fight and destroy everything in sight, and surrendered peacefully to the guard detail. The army often allows a unit to deal with its own offenders, so it is possible that the experienced guardsman had banked on this happening. If this was the case he had not taken into account that he had offended against the RMPs who had the authority to overrule individual units, and once they had decided to take matters further, there was not escape from the long arm of the law. The redcaps removed him from the guardroom and we never saw our powerful friend again.
When not otherwise occupied it was my duty to train the men in my platoon, which included all the usual things. At the same time I also had much to learn so we learned together, not always from our instructors. One lesson we learned was that you can never be too careful with weapons and devices designed to kill. We were sent to practice laying anti-personnel mines and choosing what our sergeant considered an ideal place to lay them, we began digging holes along a path near the camp. We had some dummy mines and were learning how to lay them and prime them. Using our bayonets and a small trenching tool which was a fold up spade, something like the ones you would see a child use when building sandcastles on the beach, we were progressing quite well. Then one lad a short distance from me struck something he thought was a rusty old tin can, and on holding it up the sergeant saw to his horror that it was an Italian ‘Jumping Jenny.’ A small anti-personnel mine that when triggered fired a small charge into the air which then exploded at waist height. It was old and not in a good condition which made it even more dangerous than it had been originally.
We had indeed selected the sort of place where such devices might be laid, but we were not the first ones to think so. The one we had found must have been a dud we thought, but to be sure it was place on the ground and after retreating to a safe distance, someone was given the job of shooting at it with his rifle. If you anticipate my story by assuming that we now learned that though the detonator had failed, the explosive was still potent, you would be right. When a bullet struck the device it exploded, which prompted a hasty retreat on our part with that particular lesson being over and that location marked out of bounds.
One duty I was never chosen for and as you might expect it was one I would have liked, was to train as boat crew on a landing craft that we had been equipped with. It had a large and powerful engine which I was told was the same type as the engine put in some of our tanks, and when I saw it in use it was surprisingly fast. The crew in training had great fun roaring up and down in the locality, and practicing putting an attack ashore, which was something we were going to have to learn to do at some later date. This vessel was kept in a small harbour a short distance along the shoreline from our camp, and on one occasion I had walked down that way when the LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) came in from practice. The harbour had been formed by a rock breakwater that enclosed a corner of the bay running back towards the inner shoreline with an entrance on the landward side. Round came our craft in a graceful curve with the crew clearly showing off as they swept in much faster than was really necessary. I confess that I was very impressed with their performance, as I stood watching a few yards from the water, but then I am not a sailor. The little harbour was full of fishing boats and their crews were fishermen who had spent a lifetime on the water, and they quickly demonstrated that they were not impressed. When I saw the effects of our speedy entry into the packed anchorage, I have to say that landlubber or not, I fully agreed with the feelings of the fishermen. The swing of our craft at high speed threw up a huge wave that swept into the harbour, tossing the fishing boats around like so many corks in a washing machine. Some of the small fishing boats crashed against the rocks, and some smashed against other vessels tied up alongside them. For a few minutes it was, to coin a phrase, ‘All hell was let loose.’ I never looked more closely to see what damage had been done, but decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and walked quickly away.
Another day a number of the junior NCOs were selected for firing practice with the Sten gun, and to my satisfaction I was one of them. With this being only a short range LMG (Light Machine Gun) it was decided that we could use the local quarry where our unfortunate mascots had met their sad end. So, early that morning we marched to the quarry, where weapons and ammunition were delivered in one of our 15cwt trucks. The model we were using was the mark V which had a wooden butt and the facility to fit a bayonet. It had a magazine which would hold 32 rounds of 9mm ammunition, but we never loaded more than 30 rounds to ease tension on the magazine spring, and to help avoid jamming. During the morning we fired from varying distances and in different stances, and I found that in the aim it was easy to use and quite accurate. The methods called snap shooting, and firing from the hip, were new to me and it took me a little while to get used to it. Once I had discovered that one had to lift the barrel a little higher than anticipated when firing from the hip, I soon had the shots hitting where I wanted on the target.
When lunchtime arrived the instructor formed up the squad and marched them off to camp for a meal, leaving me to look after the guns and ammunition. On departing he told me that a group of Italian Police had been given permission to use the range in their absence, and that I should give them every assistance. Sure enough a short time later the Italians arrived and I found myself watching them fire their nifty little automatic rifles. These rifles were neat and small and light, and to me appeared a perfect weapon, and on showing an interest the officer in charge invited me to try one out. This I did and found they were the easiest rifle I had ever used, even easier than my old BSA air rifle I had as a boy, which had been larger and heavier than this Italian job. The visitors were pleased to see my smile of approval and to hear my words of praise for the firearm with which they were equipped, but the officer told me in English that it was not the perfect firearm it appeared to be. Firstly he admitted that it was a small calibre with limited stopping power, and then he revealed that it had a weakness. The bar that held the breach block when it was firing had a tendency to break, and a number of users had been killed by the breach block shooting out to the rear and hitting them in the face. Having invited me to try their weapon, he now took advantage of having put me under an obligation, by asking me to allow him to try our Sten gun. Having been told to give every assistance to the Italians I decided that such an action would meet with approval, so I handed him an LMG and a loaded magazine. He fired off the rounds and pronounced the weapon crude but effective, which it was, and I reminded him that with a heavy 9mm bullet it had plenty of stopping power.
The training we did around the camp was useful, but larger exercises were much more so, with platoon and company operations taking place at regular intervals. One such outing was a day in the hills where we carried out platoon strength attacks, and section attacks on positions held by an enemy force. This was more like it I thought; now we were soldiering, and I loved every minute of it. The practice was very helpful and I learned a great deal, though some of the things I learned were not altogether of a military nature. The behaviour and performance of different individuals was an eye opener. Our platoon officer was with us for this exercise, and he was the man who was supposed to know it all, after all he was an officer. His name was second lieutenant Dedaney, (Or was it De-Daney? - I never saw his name in writing, so cannot be sure.) What I do know is that I only set eyes on him a couple of times, and what I knew about him was mostly second hand. When I describe what I know of him you will smile and think this is make believe, he could not possibly have been the ineffective wimp I make him out to be. I have to be true to my memories and tell it as I see it, and this young man was as I describe him. He was in his early twenties, with fair hair and an inoffensive demeanour, five minutes in his company and you knew that here was a man who was not cut out to be a soldier. Being a National Service man he was not in the army by choice, but he was in civil life a school teacher which made him a candidate for a commission. So here he was in command of a platoon of just over 50 men, some of whom were regular soldiers and in the profession because it was what they wanted to do. Poor chap, he was in every sense of the word: ‘A fish out of water.’ And it was quite apparent that he had little idea what he was doing.
We were lying among the bushes and undergrowth near the top of one side of a steep valley, and on the other side about a hundred yards away was a flat ledge on which some positions had been dug. The trenches were the enemy position, which we were to attack with as few casualties as possible; if we did it right this would be the result we would achieve. The officer and I were near the left hand end of our line of men, and the platoon sergeant and corporal were at the other end of the line. Very cunning I thought, the others are keeping well away from the officer so he cannot give orders, or ask them to do the job for him. Sure enough he turned to me and asked: “What needs to be done?” Was he testing me I wondered, or did he really not know what to do. I had to assume that he was trying me out, so I said that we should put some fire onto the position to keep their heads down, while mounting an attack. “Give the order to fire” he said, and again I was not sure whether he was trying to find out whether I could do it, or whether he did not know how to do it himself. Normally the officer would give the orders, but I really believe he did not know how to do it. Here goes I thought, and calling out I ordered “With ten rounds load. Range 100 yards. (This meant that no sight adjustment was needed being under 200 yards; even the fixed battle sights could have been used.) In your own time commence firing.” Now that things were under way lieutenant DeDaney gained a little confidence and ordered me to go and tell the sergeant that he should send two sections in to attack the position. So off I went using cover, to pass on his orders.
The general malaise that was prevalent among the regular soldiers was very obvious in our platoon sergeant, who showed that he thought our training was a waste of time. On hearing the young officer’s orders he just turned to me and the platoon corporal and said you two take a section each and carry out the attack. On this day our corporal was a young regular named Vernon, who had recounted interesting stories about the activities of the Battalion during the period prior to returning to the depot; they had been in Egypt for a while and before that they had been fighting the Communist partisans in Greece. Corporal Vernon knew his business, but also thought our training a waste of time, with the men being mostly NS recruits with little interest in playing war games. Taking a section he disappeared into the bushes and then it was my turn to do the same. With the men not entering into the spirit of the thing, I was just about the only one present who took the exercise seriously. The attitude of the others was part of the learning curve I experienced this day, and my understanding of the way things were took me a step forward, changing my feelings about wanting to be part of this body of men, and helping me to form a plan of action for the future.
In the meantime I still wanted to perform well in this exercise, so I surveyed the scene and decided that I could lead my team down into some thick growth in the valley, which would allow us to climb to the ledge where the enemy position was without detection. Emerging from cover we would be about 40/50 yards from the left hand end of the nearest trench, and it was my belief that if we charged in line as fast as we could, firing on the run, we would be on them before they could defend themselves. This is what I attempted to do, but the boys who were with me made no real effort, which would have resulted in some casualties. I was disappointed at the lack of enthusiasm, but reasoned that if it had been real they would have performed better, knowing that their lives depended on it. So there we were in possession of the field so to speak, but where was Corporal Vernon? We sat tight for quite some time, and the other part of the platoon joined us, but still no sign of the missing section, though we were all keeping a sharp eye open for them.
Behind the enemy side of the valley was a slightly higher ridge which must have been a further 100 yards back from the valley itself, and looking in that direction I saw the top of a head appear, then drop from sight again. It was of course the elusive corporal and his merry men, who had been on some sort of long distance hike, in an exaggerated effort to avoid detection. This was clearly a deliberate action on the part of the cunning corporal to avoid any involvement in the silly game we were playing, and it must be said that his plan worked to perfection. He and his section never made an attack, being called in with the position already taken; a perfect result from his point of view. He had enjoyed a pleasant stroll around the surrounding countryside, and his men were safe and sound with no casualties.
Corporal Vernon was an interesting fellow, who had kept us entertained with his stories of their adventures, some of which I suspect were exaggerated. Being second hand accounts I suppose they have no place in my story, but what he told us still remains in my recollection, and is thus a part of the way it comes back to me. Did he and his men fight running battles with the Greek Communists? When they were guarding the enormous dumps of arms and equipment in Egypt, did they shoot Arabs who attempted to enter at night, ensuring that their actions would not be questioned, by hanging the bodies on the wire? I believe that his stories all had an element of truth in them, but may not have happened in the way his vivid telling described them. It was my impression that corporal Vernon was a good soldier and a comrade you would be able to depend on when it came to the real thing. He was ideal soldier material, being a sharp thinker without being too much of an intellectual; an undesirable trait in a man who might have to kill or be killed without giving it too much thought. Another quality he had, which is one that makes the British the best of military men, and that was the ability to look on the bright side when a situation looks bad. He was full of the sort of vulgar humour that is common in the army, the sort of thing that can raise a laugh when there seems little to laugh about. I can still recall how the lads laughed at him when he recited a long poem that began:
Egypt, Egypt, land of sweaty socks,
Of gonorrhoea, diarrhoea, syphilis and pox
We continued to train with our various weapons, and there was nothing I didn’t know about the Bren gun, which was our main LMG, but like the Lee-Enfield rifle it fired a .303 calibre round and that required a longer range than the one we had near our camp. In addition to our personal arms we also had the support of heavier weapons which were provided by the Support Company. They had medium machineguns, 3inch mortars, and most importantly the 17 pound anti-tank gun. Because casualties on these support weapons can be high, it was decided that some of us would be trained to use them, so that replacements could be supplied if and when necessary. All this training was done without live firing, but we were going to need more live firing with our rifles and Bren-guns, but the range we would be using was a good days march away up in the mountains.
A programme of route marches was begun over a period of time, most of them being at company level, but as they became longer they began to include full battalion marches. When we went on our first full days march, which totalled ten hours marching at 4 miles an hour average, 3 ton trucks from the motor pool were sent along behind us to pick up those that could not maintain the pace. The physical training and continuous exercise was transforming those of us who had never done anything like this in their lives before, but the hardening process was a slow business. Even for those of us who were fitter and more able to stand the pace, it was no easy task to march long distances in full uniform and burdened with weapons and ammunition. The hot Mediterranean weather was testing as well, and many who thought them-selves fit also dropped out. Gradually the number of drop outs fell, until we eventually reached the point where the transport was no longer needed.
Whatever I did it was always harder for me than for the private soldier, because I really believed and tried to live up to the doctrine of the army, which was: ‘You must not ask the men to do anything that you are unable or unwilling to do yourself.’ I was also one of the few that took our training seriously, which is why the lads in my platoon hated it when they saw that I was the one that would be taking them for a five mile training run. They knew I would make them run every step of the way; it never occurred to me not to do what was expected of us, and anyway where was the benefit in a training run if you did not put your back into it. On the other hand most of the other NCOs would take the squad out of the camp at the double, but once they were out of sight, they would walk and take frequents rests.
How often I wonder now, did some of them take advantage of my naivety, maybe they would be marching along behind me with a grin on their faces, when we were out on one of our long route marches. Feeling it was my duty to do that bit extra, I would take some failing lads rifle to help him out. So there I would be slogging along in front with an extra rifle on my shoulder, or sometimes with the LMG which was over three times the weight of a rifle.
Then came the day when we were to march a full days march up into the mountains, where up on a plateau we were to go under canvas for a couple of weeks. Our location would be near to a large firing range which had its butts hard up under a ridge on the top of which ran the border markers between the Trieste ‘B’ zone, and Yugoslavia. In the next two weeks a number of things happened which I now suspect had a bearing on my future. First of all we lost our O/C (Officer Commanding) Captain Dunkey and when we returned to Lazaretto he was replaced with a Captain Edwards who was a regular soldier. Our new O/C was a man who had worked his way up from the ranks, like my father had, and for that alone I had much respect for him. This change of company commander, I suspect, had an effect on my attempts to move on, something I had now made up my mind to do.
Ever since I was a little boy I had believed that my home would be with my home county regiment. Looking at my history it was a logical conclusion for me to have come to, and it was not easy for me to abandon that belief. It took some time for me to change my view, but change it did slowly and surely. I began to see that when my father had been in the Regiment, it had been a different place, the conditions had been right for him to make progress. Now the army was a mess, and the Regiment was one of many that had become just a labour force; we were like old caretakers looking after places that someone wanted to steal. If I was to make progress I needed to be where the conditions were right for it. My father had rose rapidly up the promotion ladder when WWII started, so like him I needed a war, to be where the action was. At this very moment, as I began to think this way, the answer to my problem came knocking on my door. A call came for volunteers to join our forces presently fighting in Korea.
It would be a risk, a gamble, this I knew, but if it was successful I stood a chance of rapid promotion. I went to the orderly office and volunteered which resulted in me being called in for an interview with Captain Dunkey. He told me in no uncertain terms that my request was denied, the reasons were he told me, that firstly at 18 years of age I was too young. Only those who were 21 or over would be allowed to go, plus the fact that the battalion would only allow other ranks to transfer out. He growled something about the extreme shortage of NCOs, and that it was out of the question for anyone with stripes on their arm to leave. Later I saw a draft depart and I am sure it included men under 21, it also included NCOs, and so my feeling at the time was that my company commander had deliberately blocked my efforts to escape, for his own selfish reasons.
The more I thought about it the more convinced I became that the reasons I had been given to deny my application were false and without foundation. It made no sense to claim that I was too young to risk my life, if that was the case why had they allowed me into the army at all? Then there was the recent incident when the Yugoslavs had announced that they had run out of patience, and would give us 24 hours to leave Trieste. They had behaved this way ever since we had occupied the city at the end of the war, which is why our battalion was stationed so close to the border. Just across the bay from our camp was a head land down which the border ran, and at the end of it was a watchtower. That is how close we were to our opponents, and with their ever threatening behaviour we always had a duty company at the ready, and that company always had a standby platoon fully armed. They slept with their arms at their side plus a bandoleer of 50 rounds of ammunition each in case such a threat eventuated. When the warning came it was my platoon that had the standby duty that particular night, so off I went with fifty other young fellows to prevent the Yugoslavian army from marching down the road on their way to Trieste. Their Northern Army was just over the border on the Istria Peninsular and they were at least 150,000 strong. If that was not too much of a risk for an 18 year old, how could they justify their refusal to let me go to Korea?
I could believe that the O/C was unwilling to make life more difficult for himself by releasing useful slaves like me, that reason had a ring of truth about it. But if he was using the system to suit his purposes I would use it to defeat him. There was nothing I could do about it immediately which is why I was on this long march up into the Dolomites with Captain Dunkey leading the way, the other companies swinging along behind, in alphabetical order. Marching along the coast road, we passed through Muggia in the direction of Trieste, but after another mile or so past the village we turned away from the sea and headed inland up a narrow road that wound into the foothills. After a few more miles we stopped for a rest in a narrow valley with the hills now qualifying as mountains, rearing up steeply on each side of us. The road which had become by now just a metalled track may have taken us to our destination deep into this mountainous country, but the easy way was not part of the exercise. When ready to move, ‘A’ company followed its commander off the road in single file, climbing steeply up the mountain side, with me as second in line behind the O/C. Once again the military habit of doing things by numbers, and in strict alphabetical order, had put me at the head of the battalion with only one man in front of me.
After climbing for maybe half an hour, I looked down to see how the others were progressing, and was fascinated to see the company stretched out behind me like a long caterpillar. After a five minute interval ‘B’ company had followed us, and this pause had translated into a short gap, which from a distance looked like only a few yards. Further into the distance I could see ‘C’ company also starting to climb, and way down at the bottom of the valley I could see the other companies resting and waiting their turn to begin the climb. There was no path to follow now, and in places the terrain was tricky to say the least, especially for fully laden troops. It was a hot cloudless day and I was sweating hard, which meant everyone else would have been doing the same. With energy levels falling I began to lose interest in the scene around me, it was taking all my efforts to concentrate on the ground in front of me, and to pass safely over it. Then suddenly there was a commotion in front of me, and looking up I saw that the Captain had slipped on a large section of smooth rock, and had crashed back down. In an instant he had tumbled passed me and finally came to rest some yards below me.
Someone yelled out the order to halt, and I sat down and watch as men gathered around the fallen officer. It was found that he was unable to stand or walk, so a stretcher party was organised and the unfortunate casualty disappeared down to the valley floor, where he was collected by transport and taken to the hospital in the city. In the meantime I was told we were to continue the climb until we reached a flat area when we would assemble on another mountain track. So off I went the leading man in a long line of soldiers at least a thousand strong, it seemed quite a responsibility to be showing the way to so many. I need not have worried, we were only ten or fifteen minutes from the track they had mentioned, and once I reached it my importance ceased to exist. With the leading company slowly gathering, I was ordered with my section to gather water bottles which were to be refilled. Two or three hundred yards along the track was a small village which had a well of good clean water, and it was there that we took our bottles to be filled. The memory that remains with me of this event was the refusal of the villagers to meet us when we entered the village. They were not used to visitors, especially foreign troops, so they shut themselves in their houses, and it was like visiting the village of the dead.
Up over the mountains was a high plateau where our tents had been set up in readiness for us and within a short march of the camp was the firing range. Here over the next couple of weeks we fired our weapons every day, taking it in turn to shoot, or act as scorers in the butts, or doing camp chores. The days passed quickly leaving few highlights for me to record, and the memories I have retained are not what you would call earth shattering events. Why do I remember that we were in bell tents which had a short side wall? That this wall was rolled up during the day to help dissipate the heat of the sun, which allowed unpleasant insects of varying sorts to get into our bedding and equipment? After someone had been stung by a scorpion it became a daily routine to search for such things at the end of each day. Why do I remember the day we were lying among the rocks near to the firing point waiting for our turn on the range, when I looked over at a lad next to me and saw a snake crawling across his lower legs? It looked like a viper or something equally unpleasant, and this incident again taught us that we had to have our wits about us at all times.
Some of these minor incidents are difficult to explain being unimportant, but most would agree that bad food would be something that would remain an important recollection. The food we were given while stationed it Trieste was shocking, though it might have appeared worse to me, because I was so damned finicky. I had been eating little, and sometimes nothing at all; it was only the occasional meal at the NAAFI that kept me from starving altogether. In our camp in the mountains our rations became even worse, an example being the salad we were given one day. After queuing up at the mess tent, I came away with a mess tin full of salad, which I was not fond of at the best of times. When you are hungry you become less fussy, and I would have eaten this salad, but on examining it I found it had not been washed properly, and then on turning over a lettuce leaf I found a big fat caterpillar already sharing the meal that was meant for me. Throwing it in the drum placed nearby for such eventualities, I returned to the queue and tried my luck again. My luck was no better this second time around, so this further helping followed the first one into the rubbish bin; this was yet another day when I did not eat. Thinking about it now, I seriously believe that poor food was one of the reasons I became so determined to move on. It appears to be a ludicrous reason to make a major change to one’s life, but when you are starving such a thing can become a major issue.
Other images that have remained in my mind are also of little importance, but such mundane occurrences are what make up our lives. Our location was miles from human habitation, so we were surprised one day when three figures appeared on the road that ran past our camp. When they came closer we saw that they were three American soldiers, two of whom were Military Police, and one a bare headed prisoner they were escorting. When someone approached them, we discovered that the prisoner was on a punishment march, and that they were very much in need of a drink and something to eat. They were provided with what they needed before being sent on their way, and I could not help thinking how unfair it was that the two MPs had to suffer the same punishment as the prisoner.
The firing of weapons I enjoyed and even when we were only watching I found it exciting and impressive. The day they fired the medium machine guns I shall never forget, the massive output of fire demonstrated how destructive such a heavy volume of missiles could be. With long belts of ammunition they went on and on with a pause, and by simply traversing the line of fire, a boiling cauldron of hits moved slowly and relentlessly across the line of targets. When the guns ceased firing there was nothing left where the targets had been, everything had been destroyed, smashed into a thousand tiny pieces.
Being young and relatively ignorant, many events were considered of little importance at the time. In retrospect I am aware of a greater significance regarding some occurrences, but it would be unfair for me to berate myself as the only offender, everyone was guilty of the same lack of awareness. Today when loud noises such as gun fire are experienced, steps are taken to protect the hearing, but 50/60 years ago know one gave such things a thought. Today I am quite deaf, a state of affairs that may not have occurred if we had been more aware at the time I describe. In addition to deafness I also came close to dying one day, and gave it not a moment’s thought at the time.
We were carrying out an exercise which entailed firing two rounds at 500 yards, the running to 400, and firing two more. The targets were raised for each firing, then lowered and we had to be at the next firing point when they were exposed again. At 300 we fired two more rounds in a sitting or kneeling position, and on we went to fire again at 200 yards again sitting or kneeling. Finally at 100 yards we fired two final rounds from a standing position, after which we had to fix bayonets and charge up to the targets. It was a challenging exercise to run so far in full equipment, while retaining enough steady breathing to shoot accurately. We carried out this task one section at a time with eleven riflemen running alongside each other, the section leader being on the left of the line. When my turn came I tended to run too fast, so slowed myself to the pace of the others, all going well until we reached the 200 yard mark. At this point I opted to sit on the front of the raised firing point which allowed me to brace my arms on my knees, a steadier stance I thought. What I did not realise was that the man next to me had chosen to kneel at the back of the position, and after running 300 yards he had begun to stagger. A further complication was that his steel helmet had worked loose, and as he knelt it slid forward over his eyes.
The targets were already up, so there was only a few seconds to get our two shots off, and the fool next to me fired his first shot without being able to see where he was aiming. When it was too late he discovered that he had wandered to his left, which had placed him almost behind me when he fired. He was maybe five or six feet behind me when he fired, and the blast of his rifle and the closeness of the bullet made me deaf for days afterwards. The shot passed close to my right ear, so close that I felt it almost touch me, and the heat of it scorched my ear drum. At the time it did not seem like a serious matter, the other chap apologised and we carried on. Now I realise just how close I came to dying that day, but I was young, and if it had been a bus that had just missed me, I would have given no more thought to that than I did to being nearly shot to death.
It amuses me now to think back to that day, and recalling was a panic and a flap there had been when one of the other sections were carrying out the exercise I describe, and a man feinted after running several hundred yards in the hot sun. From the starting point the officer who was running things thought that the man who fell had been shot, and he went into a complete panic. Maybe he had a picture flash across his mind of himself being court marshalled for dereliction of duty, or something of that nature, but panic he undoubtedly did. Blowing frantic blasts on his whistle which was the signal to cease firing, he and several others began to run frantically up the range to the prostrate man. I was sitting to one side with my section watching all this, wondering how they would have reacted had they realised how close I had come to really being shot earlier in the day.
Were there more serious incidents during this short but important period in my life? Well, yes there were, I can think of two. Firstly there was the experience of seeing men shot in anger for the first time in my life. Then there was the matter of a man dying unnecessarily and needlessly, and how this event proved to be a lesson in how some people will always place their reputation and the opinion of the public before the truth.
We were firing our LMGs for the first time, with a line of them in action together; maybe there were 16 of us if I remember correctly. I was on gun number two in the line, firing short bursts of two or three rounds, when we saw a man to the left of the targets running as hard as he could. He was coming from the direction the border, so it was no surprise when several Yugoslavs in uniform appeared hot on his trail. Relations with the Slavs had been frosty to say the least, for a long time they had claimed Trieste, and in recent weeks the situation had developed until the attitude had become a ‘We shall shoot on sight’ state of mind. We had a RASC driver desert a short time before and when he headed for the Slav border by mistake, they had stopped him with gun fire, and then advised us that he was dead. When we requested the return of the body, they had refused, saying that if we wanted to bury him we would have to do so on their territory, and in accordance with their terms. By an amazing coincidence they had a man killed in Trieste who was on official business, so we in our turn took the same stance. Refusing to release the body, we insisted that they would have to bury their man where we instructed, and in accordance with terms we would lay down.
With this confrontational attitude on both sides, the authorities had ordered that any incursion into our territory would be met with force. The intruding patrol were therefore ordered to go back by one of our officers, when they ignored the warning, the man on the number one gun next to me was ordered to fire on them. Two or three short bursts were fired, and we saw two or three of the pursuing figures fall. This was enough to prove our serious intentions and the opposing force gathered up their casualties and retreated, with no further harm being done to them by us. With a row of LMGs available there is no doubt that we could have destroyed them completely, which is something they were probably aware of as well.
To my knowledge this incident was never made public, and as far as I know there were no repercussions from the Yugoslavians. Also, I never found out who the man was that they had been chasing, though I did see him taken away by one of our trucks, and for some days afterwards all sorts of rumours flew around the camp. The most popular one being that he had been a spy who had been detected and managed to escape.
The second of the two serious events that I remember happened again on the range, but this time there was no outside involvement. Continuous and heavy use of ammunition meant that regular re-supply was required, and this was done by way of a Bren gun carrier, which being a tracked vehicle was ideal for the job. The vehicle and its crew were under the command of a young officer who as many young men in charge of something might do, got bored with routine and official procedure. Once again the men I was with were doing what infantry have to do so often, sitting and waiting for orders. We had seen the carrier going back and forth on its supply runs, following a track that ran alongside the range, so we were expecting it when later in the afternoon it came again on another trip. What did surprise us was the course it took when it left the track and began dipping and diving across the rough ground which lay below the range. We would have been about 200 or 300 yards away and could see the drivers head and another man beside him. They would have been just below the steel sides of the carrier, looking through observation slits in the armour. Just behind them and sitting on the upper edge of the steel sides was the young officer who was having a very exciting time, riding his bucking steed like a cowboy at a rodeo. This behaviour was asking for trouble and after some distance they got the trouble they were asking for. Crossing a low steep bank at an angle the pitching and tossing carrier tipped just a little too far, and over it went ending upside down with the two crew trapped inside. For a minute or so we sat and laughed, thinking that the silly bugger had got what he deserved, and now he would be for the high jump. The thought of an officer being in hot water was not unpleasing to us; after all they were the ones that were usually handing it out to the rest of us.
Our sanguine view of things did not last for long, when other reached the scene and shouted for further assistance. Without orders we were not going to move, but we could see that something was very wrong down at the crash site. Eventually an ambulance appeared and a blanket covered stretcher was place into it, this did not look good at all. Back in camp we discovered that the officer had been killed, and it had been very messy. Second Lieutenant Campbell from Stoke-on-Trent had been almost chopped in two by the edge of the carrier, a fate we would not have wished on anyone, not even the RSM. It was only a few days later, maybe a week or so, when I went home on leave, and the first thing I saw in the Staffordshire Sentinel was a report on the death of Lieutenant Campbell, who had died while carrying out his duty with great gallantry and in the service of his Queen and country; or words to that affect. From that day onwards I have never taken the news media at face value.
On returning to our barracks at Lazaretto, I felt even more determined than ever to improve my situation, and I had learned that the only way to do this was to use the system. How could I make progress and make a future for myself? The first thing was to decide what I would enjoy, and what I might be good at. The answer seemed to be the police, but I still had three years to serve in the army, so how could I use those three years to further my ambitions? The plan that I formed in my mind was as follows:
- Apply for a transfer to the Royal Military Police.
- Transfer to the Provost Corps. – They ran the military prisons, otherwise known as glasshouses. The minimum rank as a prison officer was Staff Sergeant.
- Apply for SIB. (Secret Investigation Branch) The military equivalent to the CID. Minimum rank for application was sergeant.
If I could achieve this in the time I had left in the army, I would be a perfect candidate for a plain clothes job in the CID, when my time was up. What is more I would still be only 21 years old. An ambitious plan with more difficulties than I could ever imagine at the tender age of 18, but with the confidence of youth nothing seemed impossible.