Sunday, 4 March 2012

The traditional last resort, I join the army

Volume 1 – Chapter 16 – Part 1

It never occurred to me that the army I was joining was not the same as the army my father had joined some 30 years before. When he volunteered the military was shrinking and raising its standards, every recruit was a regular soldier, who was expected to achieve a professional status. When I joined most recruits were draftees under the National Service System, which had been recently reduced from 2 years service to 18 months. They were as you might expect reluctant warriors, which most of them made very clear at every opportunity. The age of my companions varied from 18 years to early 20s some taking advantage of the right to delay their service for various reasons. With the attitude that they had it was difficult for the army to lick them into any sort of shape, which resulted in soldiers of poor quality. This lack of interest and commitment led in turn to a drop of morale in what few regulars we had, which included all the officers and NCOs. It is in retrospect that I describe this state of affairs, but at the time I knew nothing of the way things were.

The distance from Stoke-on-Trent to the depot at Whittington Barracks was about 50 kilometres, which was a couple of hour’s journey on the bus, changing at Lichfield. When I arrived I was issued with the necessary equipment and shown to an empty barrack room, where I was left to my own devices. It was going to be about ten days before the next draft would arrive to occupy this empty barrack room, and in the meantime no one had the slightest interest in one lonely young lad. I discovered that the training depot received a new draft of about a hundred men every two weeks, and I was to join the next group. After basic training began and a couple of months had passed, the new squads were sorted into various grades. The no hopers were given menial tasks at the depot, and those who had shown at least a little promise were fed to the four regiments that called the depot home. These were the Cheshire Regiment, the KSLIs (King’s Shropshire Light Infantry) the South Staffordshire Regiment, and my father’s regiment, the North Staffordshire Regiment. Few had any choice regarding their ultimate destination, but regulars such as I was would be sent to the regiment of their choice, (which for me was the North Stafford’s,) providing they showed sufficient aptitude for the military life.

My first few days gave me no reason to believe that I had made the wrong decision, I was able to organise my kit, and enjoy leisure hours at the Church Army Canteen, which provided amongst other things good quality meals. At this early stage, I imagined that I would tread in my father’s footsteps, staying in the regiment gaining promotion as a result of good performance, just as he did. Gradually over the next few weeks I began to realise that life in the army had changed, and those changes were not for the better. Another thing I became aware of was that it was impossible to explain ones point of view to anyone in the army, you were just another cog in the machine. It did not matter how you felt about it, the whole system was impersonal, and feelings or personal views were not part of the equation. The first few days of blissful seclusion melted away, and the grim reality of basic training began with the arrival of the new draft.

Basic training was not meant to be fun, and the system was well tuned to dealing with the disorganised rabble which each intake proved to be. When they arrived they were divided into two or three platoons of approximately 50 recruits to each platoon, and each was designated the appropriate number of officers and NCOs. The officers we hardly ever saw, with all the training being done by the instructors who were based permanently at the depot. This included the NCOs who looked after us and organised our every waking hour. The discipline and harsh unfriendly treatment we received did little to attract us to army life, and I am sure that most of these young men remembered their time in the army as a thoroughly miserable and unhappy experience. It was quite disturbing on the first few nights, after the new recruits joined me, to hear some of them cry after lights out. Some of them had never been away from home before, and to be treated with such a lack of sympathy and understanding was more than they could bear. They had been herded back and forth, given food they did not like and could not eat, and in most cases, had their hair cut off leaving them looking like the prisoners they felt they had become.

These newcomers were a typical cross section of society, some were honest with good moral standards, and others had no morals at all. It is true to say that birds of a feather flock together and it was not long before groups began to form. There were a few who kept their distance; they were the ones who knew where they were going and what they were doing. The training we were given was the typical sort of thing that requires no description from me. What I recall apart from that, is the little things that made life different, and either better or worse. Like training in wet weather during which we changed from our denims, into our second best uniforms, and then changing again into our best uniforms, eventually ending up with every piece of clothing we had soaking wet. There was one small fireplace in our barrack room which had little chance of drying all those wet clothes, so we dressed in those that were least wet and carried on. Not only was the weather wet, but it was winter time and it was freezing cold with ice and snow as well. Who could forget the experience of standing guard duty on an extremely cold night, during which one was sent into the dark forbidding realms of the transport park on the edge of the barracks. Huddled in an army greatcoat it was still impossible to keep warm, and the freezing cold wind seemed to seek you out no matter where you tried to shelter.

Duty and training was something we all expected, but I also knew that there would be some domestic chores we would be called upon to do. One thing I fully expected was kitchen work, and in particular spud bashing, or as civilians would say, peeling potatoes. While we were at the depot my expectations proved to be wrong, the changing face of the army had for once improved things for the humble recruit. We now had sufficient female recruits to do all these domestic duties, though we never saw them around camp where the training was being carried out. The only time I saw women at the barracks was when I was doing guard duty, at which time I was sent with a bucket of tea to their billets at 5 o’clock in the morning to wake them for their duties. My instructions were to bang on the door, switch on the lights, march into the room, and put the bucket of tea on a trestle table. Hit your night stick on the table to make sure they are all awake, the guard sergeant said, and then leave the room without further delay. I did what I was told exactly, but could not help noticing that two beds were empty, and two beds had two occupants. Very strange I thought to myself, maybe they were cold, seeing it was a snowy winters night.

After my first couple of weeks of training, I was beginning to get a totally different impression of what life was like in the army. Discipline and the discomforts of a soldier’s life I had expected, and was willing to accept, but harsh and unfair treatment I had not expected. It was not in my nature to accept injustice, and I began to realise that if I objected my life in the army was not going to be a happy one. The situation came to a head on a day that once again demonstrated the bad temper and downright evil temperament of the sergeant in charge of our squad. He was shouting and abusing everyone in his usual way, but the people he particularly disliked got the main thrust of his nastiness. One lad in particular could do nothing right being totally unsuited to life in the military, and the sergeant positively hated this unfortunate young man. Because he was useless he would be left as the barrack room orderly while the rest of us followed the training programme. To leave him as the permanent orderly was very unfair to him because this meant he had no chance of making progress and qualifying for anything useful. Such people usually spent their time in the army doing all the dirty and unpleasant jobs, and that is what our miserable sergeant was condemning his victim to with complete certainty.

Our barrack room was an upstairs one, so we all clattered down the stairs and fell into ranks alongside the accommodation block. After giving the poor orderly a stream of abuse, and a string of unpleasant and unnecessary jobs to do, the sergeant followed us out side. On emerging he suddenly remembered something else he had meant to say, so he turned and shouted up to the windows of the billet demanding the attention of the terrified lad upstairs. While he was still roaring and bellowing his instructions, there was a sudden commotion at one of the windows above him and the glass was shattered as the unfortunate sufferer of all this torment ran to the window and in his panic thrust his head through the glass. This demonstration of complete panic and demoralisation was the last straw as far as I was concerned, and I resolved to do something to show my disapproval, and to register some form of protest.

It was all very well to decide to take some action, but what could I do? I knew that protesting against the actions of someone in authority would be unacceptable and only make me a marked man. There was nothing I could do to help the fellow being persecuted his future was guaranteed regardless of the actions of the hateful sergeant. I thought long and hard about the problem, realising that I had to find some way of using the system, the only way to make them recognise that all was not well. Eventually an idea came to me, when I realised that I was not the same as the others. I had signed on as a regular whereas the others in the squad had been drafted. A volunteer has the right to buy themselves out of the army if they so wished, though this action was discouraged by making the cost extremely high. At the time a private soldier earned £2/3 a week, and most of that was usually designated as family support. (My father had pointed out to me that such family payments continued if a soldier was killed, otherwise the family received nothing in the event of his death.) The cost of buying out of the army was £100 a huge sum at the time, which resulted in very few taking this course of action. I reasoned that if I were to take this action it would surely indicate to the authorities that all was not well in the ranks.

My plan was a bluff of course because every way you looked at it, there was no way it would benefit me really. Everyone would disapprove, my father especially, and my fellow recruits would see no advantage in what I was doing for them. No matter how I looked at it there appeared to be no other course of action open to me, I considered the behaviour of the army unacceptable and I was going to let them know it. The next day I requested an interview with the officer commanding the training company, and when I marched in to see him, I blurted out my feelings, and explained why I was not happy. I knew that it would be unwise to mention names, so my complaint was of a general nature; even so I made it abundantly clear that I was not the only one who felt dissatisfied. The officer considered my file, deciding it appears, that I was good soldier material and worth trying to keep. He agreed that I had the right to request the course of action I was asking for, but he suggested that though I may be feeling unsettled right now, in a few more days I might see things from a different perspective. Would I give it a little longer before making a final decision? This sounded reasonable to me so I agreed, and was marched out.

Did I achieve anything or did I stick my neck out unnecessarily? I shall never know the answer to that, though I can relate what happened next. The question should also be considered, what would I have done if the officer had called my bluff and agreed to me leaving? I did not have the money to pay the princely sum required to gain my freedom, and knew that if it had come to it I would have had to ask my parents to bale me out. It would have been the last thing that my father would have been prepared to do, but I was banking on my mother’s protective nature. She would have come to my rescue I was sure of that and with her on my side I was sure I could have made my bluff stick. If the truth be known I was probably relieved that I did not have to carry out my threat, and within a couple of days the situation did improve for me, though not for the others who continued on with their basic training.

A day or two after my interview I was called back to the company office, to be told that I had been selected for the OR1 (Other Ranks 1st Class) platoon which was made up of recruits selected for advanced training. About half of those selected were given a blue flash to wear on their epaulettes, which indicated that they were considered officer material. They were all officer types, being well spoken and self confidant, and clearly well aware that after their induction and basic training, officer training was the next step on their journey to success. All except one were National Service men, but the exception was a tall aristocratic looking fellow, who was a regular like me, and he told me that his destination was Sandhurst. The balance of the squad was given red flashes to wear and we were the potential NCOs. We had reasonable people in charge of us, and were well looked after, and I thought to myself, this is more like the army I expected.

For the next few weeks we were given intense training in everything we needed to know to be infantry leaders, though before it began we were given leave. Weekend leave became a regular thing, and so did evenings out of barracks, which is how I came to discover the delights of the cinemas at Tamworth. I had not yet made any friends so usually I would go into town on the bus, and escape into the world offered by the latest film. Tamworth was a garrison town and only 6 or 7 miles from Whittington Barracks, so I was not able to escape the military completely. The first time that I ventured into town I was reminded that the army was not far away, something I had to remember at all times. After watching the film I had chosen to see, I was leaving the theatre when I found myself alongside a corporal from the depot. Out on the street he spoke to me saying: “It’s cold tonight isn’t it?” and I politely agreed with him.

What a fool I was to think that he was just being friendly, when in fact he was being sarcastic. When he spoke to me I had my beret in my hand, and he was telling me that I should have been wearing it. I was still too green to realise what a serious offence it was to go bareheaded out of doors. Maybe he thought I was being a clever Dick when I appeared to pretend to agree with his remark about the weather, I shall never know. What I did find out very quickly was that he was angry with me and determined to wake my ideas up. With a snarl he said to me: “Put you headgear on right now, and when we get back to barracks I shall report you to the guardroom.” All the way back to the barracks I sat on the bus feeling worried and distressed, wondering what my punishment would be. The corporal sat behind me and must have had a great deal of amusement out of knowing how miserable he had made me. When we walked through the main gates, I did not know whether to present myself, or keep walking, so I loitered about until my unfriendly colleague had gone his way. He did not say anything so I breathed a sigh of relief and took myself off to the safety of my bed.

Longer periods of leave were well organised with many allowed out for a number of days, and with buses arranged to and from the main centres. For weekend passes it was left to each man to find his own way home, though special buses were usually arranged to make sure that everyone returned on time. It must have been early in 1951 that I set out to go home early on a Saturday morning, with thick layers of snow on the roads and ice forming everywhere. It was not long before a lorry driver picked me up outside the barracks, and he chatted to me in the warmth of his cab while we made our way North. He dropped me in Lichfield, and I started to walk out of town, thinking that with a uniform on other drivers would show some sympathy and give me a ride. Maybe I was right, or possibly travellers were friendlier and obliging than they are today, but I certainly did not have long to wait before a car stopped to offer me a lift.

The kind occupants in the car were a middle aged man and his son, who was about my age. The young man was driving on a trip to visit relatives, and with the weather so bad they had felt some sympathy for my solitary figure standing in the snow. We talked for a while and then they put on the car radio, which was broadcasting an old episode of ITMA (It’s That Man Again) with the famous Tommy Hanley and all his well known characters such as Mrs Mop, and Colonel Chinstrap. We were all enjoying it and I was feeling very pleased at how well my journey was progressing, when disaster struck. We were not far from Rugeley maybe 5/6 miles South of Stafford, where the road was cut into a hillside with a high shoulder on our left, and a drop of some distance on our right, down to the river Trent way down in the valley. The road had a long slow bend to the left, and our young driver did not follow it in a steady turn, maybe because he had been distracted by the comedy on the radio. When he suddenly realised he was drifting over the centre of the road, he made the mistake of correcting too abruptly, which in the wintry conditions was a big mistake.

The sharp change of direction at maybe forty miles per hour sent the car into an uncontrollable spin on the icy road, and for a few moments we could see first the high shoulder, and then the long drop to the river, pass before us in rapid succession. It all happened so suddenly we did not have time to take fright at our situation, but I for one realised as we spun up the road, that if we went over the drop to the river we would be in serious trouble. On this occasion lady luck smiled upon us, and the car skidded off the road on the left side with its bonnet in the air and its rear buried in a deep snow drift. No one was hurt, but the car was well and truly stuck, and with nothing moving on the road, it was going to be some time before help arrived. Realising there was nothing I could do to help them my companions suggested that I continue my journey, leaving them to take care of their car. This I did after a few words of sympathy for their plight, trudging off through the snow and disappearing round the long steady bend. After only a short distance I discovered another reason the road was so quiet, there was a large truck with its nose in the ditch and the length of it across the road. Behind it was a line of traffic that could not get passed, and shortly after I walked up to the jamb one of the trucks in the queue decided to turn back. The driver had decided to return to a transport depot near Hanford, and seeing me invited me to ride with him. On arriving at our destination I only had a short bus ride home, so after an adventurous journey I eventually enjoyed a cosy weekend being fed like a king by my mother.

Over the next couple of weeks the weather began to improve, which was fortunate for us, because included in our training programme was a map reading exercise. Part of this course was a test during which we were sent out in pairs to find our way from one location to another. It was also an initiative test because we had to find our own way to these destinations and they were a number of miles apart. Having taken to map reading like a duck to water, I enjoyed these outings, away from the barracks and free to wander the countryside for a whole day. To their credit the instructors had included some challenges which made the whole exercise great fun, or so I thought. Leaving the barracks with a map reference, we would make our way to the point designated and look for the next reference, which we were told we would find there. One such reference turned out to be a farm not far from Burton, (the home of some of the country’s biggest breweries,) which we reached after a lift on the back of another lorry. After searching the farm we found pinned to the farmhouse front door the next reference plus a detail to prove we had done the job properly. The farmer had a daughter whose name was Rebecca and this was the answer to a question on a list we had been given when we set out. Another location we went to was a low bridge over a canal, where we discovered the information we needed had been stuck on the underside of the bridge too far away for us to read. It was over the water so how were we to reach it? Looking at the situation my first thought was they had reached that spot, so we had to find out how. The bridge had been designed to allow the horses that used to tow the barges to pass under on each side, and the width was just enough to allow the narrow barges to pass through. This narrow waist of only six feet or so had head room of about the same dimensions, so I figured the instructors must have found a way of bridging the gap. Hunting about I soon found a long thick plank of wood which had been hidden in some long grass on a nearby bank. Placing it across the narrow waist under the bridge, I found that it was possible to get close enough to the instructions to read them. So off we went again on the next stage of our journey, which ended back at the barracks, with I am pleased to say, a good result.

Having been part of an army life before undoubtedly helped me to adjust to the training we were given now. Most of the weapons were familiar to me, and I needed little instruction with the MkIV Lee-Enfield rifle, or the Bren gun, and Sten gun. There were other weapons of course, such as the 2 inch mortar, the Mills hand-grenade, and the detestable PIAT (personal infantry anti-tank) gun. The PIAT was the only weapon we never fired with live ammunition, I never found out why, but suspected that the bombs it fired were expensive, and the weapon was said to be dangerous to use. The recommended range was 100 yards of less, but we were told that the closer to the target you could get the better. The main danger when firing this awful anti-tank weapon was that the bomb had a long narrow blast field when it exploded, which sometimes enveloped the person firing the weapon, with unpleasant results. Another problem was the guard on the front of the cradle where the missile was placed. To hold the bomb level the fins had a metal ring attached which sometimes caught on the front guard when the bomb was leaving the cradle. If this happened the ring would bounce backwards and had been known to scalp the person firing the weapon. We were warned that if we fired the PIAT the head should be lowered at the moment of firing, which would present the steel helmet to the possible point of impact should the ring bounce back. Even in practice I hated this badly designed weapon, because to fire the first round it had to be cocked, which involved compressing a powerful spring. The only way to do this was to place the feet on the shoulder plate of the weapon and pull the body of it up until the trigger catch engaged the compressed spring and held it in position. We were to find that many of the recruits were not strong enough to accomplish this task, so how they would have gone on in a battle situation I dread to think; what we would have given for a German Panzer Faust, or an American Bazooka.

The training we were getting was intensive and detailed, but so it should be if were to become NCOs or Commissioned Officers. I was confident that I was doing as well as, if not better than, the others in the squad, and this was a feeling that was enhanced when we came to shooting and target practice. The army was constantly cost cutting and trying to save money, which was why we rarely had the opportunity to fire live munitions. The cheapest weapon to fire was of course the humble rifle, but even that was an expense when ammunition of a ·303 calibre was used. So, a few rifles were converted to a ·22 calibre which was very cheap, and we were given plenty of practice on an indoor range firing at a target with a one inch bullseye, and rings which were half an inch wide, giving a total diameter of four inches. We used long rifle rounds which were the same as the ammunition I had used in my rabbit shooting days, so to me it was like welcoming old friends when this ICI ammunition appeared.

Again our instructors showed their consideration when they decided to make the shooting practice more interesting by arranging a competition. I have no idea now what the facts and figures were, but it was something like fifty of us taking part, contributing maybe a shilling each for a prize. We would be firing a distance of maybe 25 yards using the targets previously described, and 6 or 7 riflemen at a time would fire five rounds each until everyone had taken part. The scoring was 5 points for a bull, 4 for an inner ring, 3 for a magpie, 2 for an outer ring, and 1 point if you hit the target outside the rings. The one with the highest score in each round would qualify for the next round, which fired again to find the winner. I fired in both rounds and scored ten bulls which was a perfect score, but so did another chap who was a practiced marksman. He was a small Scotsman who had the blue flashes of a potential officer, and he had all the confidence in the world. A shoot off was going to be necessary, and the instructors decided to make it a little harder by moving the targets back a further 5 yards, which made the bullseyes on our targets just a small black dot. We fired a further five rounds and the targets were retrieved with everyone eager to find out if a budding officer was going to be the winner, or some young kid who looked still wet behind the ears. The instructor looked at my target and called out four bulls and an inner, so I had dropped one point having now a total of 74 out of a possible 75. Then he looked at my opponents target and called out three bulls and two inners a total of 73 which made me the winner by one point. My good shooting must have improved my ratings with the instructors, but it did nothing to change my reputation at the time. I had won the prize money which was being held by the sergeant, but I eventually only got some lose change, because he announced that the winner would shout tea and a wad for everyone at the NAAFI canteen, and that took most of what I had won.

With plenty to occupy my mind I found that the last week or two of training sped past, and along came the day when we of the OR1 platoon were called up for an interview. We were still sleeping in the same barrack rooms we had when first assigned to a training unit, and on the final day we were called separately and I never saw my companions from OR1 again. How the others fared I never discovered; the only outcome I was told about was my own. Arriving at the training company office I marched in and found myself before a panel of three or four officers. They sat and looked over my record for a minute or two, and then one of them snapped out a question: “If you are throwing a mark 36 Mills Grenade what happens when it leaves your hand?” The answer was not a problem because I had been interested in such things during training, so I replied: “The release of the clasp fitted to the grenade allows the spring loaded striker to hit the percussion cap which ignites the fuse. After seven seconds the standard fuse ignites the detonator which explodes the grenade.” Then another of the officers asked me: “What other fuses are there and how do you recognise them?” Again I replied without hesitation: “The standard fuse has a white band around the base, but there is an 11 second fuse which has a yellow band. The longer fuse is used for grenades which are fired from a cup discharger which is fitted to the barrel of a rifle, a ballistite cartridge being the propellant used.” My answers seemed to be satisfactory, and after some further discussion between them, the one at the centre of the table said: “We consider you to be suitable material for promotion, though it has been noted that you have are inclined to be sarcastic, and this is not a desirable trait in an NCO. You will have to overcome this habit of yours, and if you do there is no reason why you should not become a satisfactory NCO.

The next day I was called to the office again and handed some stripes to sew on my battle dress, I was also told that I was to go on embarkation leave immediately because I had been posted to the 1st Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment which was just arriving home from Egypt. After some leave the Battalion was being posted to Trieste and I would be going with them.

1 comment:

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