It was dark but the rain had stopped when my train reached the little wayside station at Honiton. As I stepped down onto the platform, I saw a soldier standing in the station entrance and presumed that he was the driver I’d been told to expect, who would meet me and take me to the Training Camp. But, when I approached him, he said he knew nothing about me, he’d come to collect somebody else. Nevertheless, he gave me a lift to the camp.
As we swept into the camp entrance and stopped outside of the guard house, I could see, by the entrance lights, that everything was spick and span, clean-painted, and very military looking. The guards at the gate were very smart, seemed efficient and I had wondered to myself if I’d finish up like them after my training. I had certainly hoped so.
When I reported to the guard house, nobody knew anything about me there either. Phone calls were made, papers were hunted through, and an officer was sent for. Fina1ly I was told that, as it was the weekend and almost the whole of the camp was on leave, I could either go back home and report back on the Monday morning, or I could stay in one of the spare huts and spend the weekend at my leisure.
It was a bit of an anticlimax. I certainly wasn’t going to rush all the way back up to Reading and go through all the goodbyes again. I decided to stay there and amuse myself until somebody came who knew what to do with me. Creeping thoughts of bad organisation had me hoping that this wouldn’t end up like the T. A. unit.
I was shown to a hut, given a bed, told how to find the Mess and the NAAFI then left to my own devices. Half an hour later, another new recruit was brought in. He’d also been sent to the camp that day instead of on the following Monday.
This chap was a very tall, thin, fair-haired lad who I instantly named ‘Splitpin’ as, apart from his enormous hands, I thought of a splitpin when I first saw him. He was a quiet West Country boy and we struck up a friendship straight away. We explored the camp together and put many questions to the skeleton staff that had stayed on for the weekend.
Heathfield Army Training Camp was on the left hand side of the A.30 trunk road, about a mile west of Honiton. The main Southern Region Railway lines to the west passed along the rear of the camp and the whole area was surrounded by the beautiful rolling hills of Devon. I can’t recall any rainy days while I was there although we did have a week or so of snowy weather. Through my period at the camp, the days had seemed the usual golden colour, although sometimes they were very cold and frosty.
If I recall right, four different regiments had their
recruits trained at Heathfield. They were The Duke Of
Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment, The Gloucester Regiment, The
Hampshire Regiment and (I think) The Somerset and Dorset (Light
Note: The latter was once disputed in the only 'nasty' email I've received regarding my writings. Unfortunately I accidentally trashed the email before changing things here - and the email-writer hadn't been man enough to use his name & email address for me to get back to him!
The large parade ground was surrounded by administration offices, a medical centre, an M. T. section , clothing stores, lecture rooms, the mess hall and NAAFI, ablution blocks, and barrack huts. There were more barrack huts scattered around the rear of the camp by the railway line. An assault course was situated on the right edge of the camp, behind the NAAFI, and there was a rifle range, about half a mile away, over the other side of the railway. To me, it was a very large camp, but I was told that it was small compared to the great camps at Tidworth and Aldershot. The whole camp was surrounded by a high, chain-link fence.
Splitpin and I wandered around the camp, made a note of the most important buildings (like the mess and the NAAFI) and explored the small town of Honiton where the only thing that I found interesting was a cinema. The weekend seemed to flash by. Then suddenly it was Monday morning, and at last things began to move.
The pair of us awoke on that morning and wandered onto the parade ground where some recruits were marching about. That was our first mistake. A bellowing voice echoed across the square at us and we ran helter-skelter back to the perimeter road, nobody was allowed on the parade ground unless they were on parade. What was worse, we were told, was the fact that we had made the parade ground look scruffy because we’d had civvies (civilian clothes) on. It was all a bit of a laugh to Splitpin and I. At the time we thought that just because we were still in civvies none of the army rules and regulations would be pushed onto us. But we were soon shown otherwise.
Splitpin and I were rounded up and joined a hotchpotch group of lads that had come from all over England. There were Yorkshire and Newcastle accents mixed up with the slow drawl of the West and the fast, excited chatter of the Home Counties. A few of the lads were older and had rejoined the army after a period in civvie street.
There were enough new recruits in our platoon to fill two barrack huts and our huts were situated towards the back of the camp near the railway line. In charge of us were a Second lieutenant, a Sergeant, and a Corporal to each hut. I can recall their names, but for this narrative I shall use their ranks only.
Of course, there were many other Corporals, Sergeants, and Officers at the camp along with other platoons of recruits in various stages of training. We were just the raw recruits of that time and a small part of the hordes that passed through that camp each year.
While on the parade ground, our Sergeant was the typical example of Sergeants seen in films, shouting and screaming at anything that moved below his rank. As soon as he’d introduced himself and the two Corporals, he started bellowing and shouting. Most of us jumped with shock and realised, at last, that we were really in the army. The sarcastic tones of this shouting, that we would come to know so well, came out in the first five minutes of the platoon’s initial assembly. As we stood in our ragged lines, suitcases by our feet and dressed in our best civvy clothes, an unfortunate late-comer arrived on the scene. With an explosion of sarcastic comments (“Couldn’t you leave dear Mummy?” “Last drink of lemonade with the boys up the pub?” “Girlfriend’s bed too warm to want to leave?’ etc.) from the Sergeant, the lad stood quaking until he was finally allowed to hide himself in amongst the other quaking new recruits. Not only had I been amazed by the tirade, but I’d also been surprised to see that the late-comer was none other than an old friend, Dick (of the playing football in the street incident) who lived just around the corner from our house. He’d decided to try the army as well.
From that moment on, we were in training. Although most of us didn’t know how to march, stand to attention properly, or the difference between stand at ease and stand easy, we did what we thought was right and the Sergeant would shout with much sarcasm at our efforts and show us the correct way. Some of the lads didn’t even know their left foot from their right and his eyes would flash down to the feet as we marched around so that he could catch those lads out. He was determined to make or break us and told us so.
But he wasn’t a bad chap off the parade ground. Sometimes he’d sit down with us in the evenings and, in a quiet voice that would surprise anyone who had only seen him giving orders, he’d yarn and joke with us as if he was one of the boys. I came to admire him as, in spite of the way he shouted at us, he was fair and helped us no end.
The Corporal of our hut, on the other hand, was one of those spoilt, bullying, tubby little lads, just like ‘The Cat’ had been in the T. A. at Reading. He was in the Gloucester Regiment and was forever bragging about the ‘Glorious Gloucesters’ and “How brave we’d fought at Imjim.” We all knew that he hadn’t been there, but I’m sure that he thought he had. He told us that he was a judo expert and would take any of us on that thought he was good enough to beat him. He never had any takers.
His favourite trick was to make a lad stand to attention in front of a wall hook, then he would lift the lad up and hang him, by the folds in the back of his uniform blouse, to the hook. While the helpless lad hung there, barely able to breath through the tightness of the blouse around the chest, the Corporal would dare the lad to say anything or hit out. Most of the lads were trying to create a good impression and would just take it, whereupon the Corporal would walk away and order, with much sarcasm in his voice, somebody else to take the ‘snivelling, little coward’ down. I was about the third lad that I knew to go through that humiliating experience, and I found it very hard not to kick him straight between the legs as I hung there. My arms were held back by the blouse, I couldn’t breath because of the constricting waist-band around my chest and I knew why the other couple of victims had flopped to the floor, breathless, after being released. We noticed that he never tried that trick around the big lads, or the ‘old lags’. That Corporal hid behind his stripes and we knew it wasn’t worth ending up on a charge for such a rotter. But, the old lags told us that they’d show us how to get even at the end of our training, so we put up with it and waited for that day.
The Corporal of the other hut was a very decent chap, and the Second lieutenant, a very young officer, seemed to only show up once a day, or on special occasions.
And so we started our training with clumsy marching, sloppy lines, hair-cuts, clothing issues, injections for this and that, and lectures on the army and what was expected of us.
I became 23779220 Private D. J. James of 65 Platoon Training Coy. Heathfield, Honiton. Devon.
From the beginning, having signed on for six years, I was determined to give the army everything I had. In return I was hoping that it would give me adventure and make a man of me. I wasn’t too worried about the shouting and screaming, I knew that was a part of being in the forces. I wanted to do everything right and was willing to work hard to get it that way. With this in mind I made it a rule that, for the three month’s training, I would stay in every evening until my uniform, belt, boots, and bed-space were as perfect as I could make them. While my mates were going out to such places as Honiton or Exeter for an evening ‘with the girls’, I’d be ironing, blancoing, brushing, and polishing until I was satisfied that I wouldn’t get picked up for anything on the morning inspection. Then I’d polish my bed-space floor, and dust around my area to make sure that I wouldn’t get picked up for anything there. Occasionally, I’d be finished with half an hour to spare to slip down the NAAFI for a cup of tea if I was lucky.
The NAAFI was like a shop, cafe, pub, functions room, and small dance hall all mixed into the same large room. In spite of all my new mates supping their beers, I was still happy with a cup of tea. There was a juke box in the corner with a good selection of songs so I didn’t miss out on the latest chart-busters. Elvis Presley had ‘Little Sister’ in the top-twenty, along with ‘Big John’ by Jimmy Dean, Dion’s ‘Runaround Sue’, ‘Wild Wind’ by John Leyton, and ‘Take Good Care Of My Baby’ by Bobby Vee. Although things had gone wrong with Crystal and I through myself being so mixed up, my love for her was just as deep as it had ever been, and I remember that, every time I heard that Bobby Vee song, I hoped that some lad was taking good care of Crystal.
Meanwhile, unknown to myself, Alf had also joined the army and was training for a career with The Green Jackets, a fast-moving infantry regiment. I can’t recall where he did his training, but our army lives would travel along similar lines except for one difference which I wouldn’t discover until later.
Each morning we’d get up, dress in our fatigue (working) clothes and go to the mess for breakfast. With breakfast over, we’d go back to the hut, make sure that our bed-space was clean, then change into our uniforms ready for the daily morning inspection.
Lined up outside of our huts, the Sergeant would inspect us minutely while the Corporal held his little note book at the ready, for this was when names were taken for sloppy dress, dirty boots, buttons undone, yellow egg-yolk on chins, and all the other things that would only upset a Sergeant in the army. Day after day, I’d stand there while the Sergeant scrutinised me closely from head to toe, and every day I’d relax as he passed me by, taking names all around but never taking mine. It made me feel that all the evening work was worth it.
Gradually, the Sergeant and the Corporals began to mould us into soldiers. We had hours of marching and drilling, often with the Sergeant throwing his pacing stick to the ground as he screamed in frustration at our clumsy efforts. We had lectures, physical training, cross-country runs, inspections, and spells on the assault course. As in armies all over the world, most of the lads complained about all this work, but I enjoyed the challenge and the work.
I learned how to put soap on the inside of my clothes’ pleats for knife-edge sharpness while ironing, how to get a mirror shine on my boots by using a bit of spit with the polish (after burning all the little knobbles off the leather with a hot spoon handle), How not to tuck my trouser-bottoms into my gaiters but use a ring of elastic around my leg and tuck the trouser-bottoms up under the elastic, and how to shrink my beret with alternate soaking in hot and cold water.
My nineteenth birthday passed with no memories, and we slipped into December. Unknown to myself at the time, Mum had decided to move house again. A large terrace house had been advertised for rent down the Oxford Road, closer to Reading town. John and Derek arranged the removals while Mum and Val went down to the new address to prepare everything. It was a very cold day and, while John and Derek were waiting for the furniture lorry, they made a large fire in the back garden to get rid of bits and pieces and warm themselves up.
A lot of things vanished that day, most probably on that fire, that couldn’t be replaced. Clothing went missing, all my little ‘Airfix’ models that were hanging from my bedroom ceiling or on the walls of the front room were never seen again, five enormous volumes of ‘Boy’s Own Papers’, that I’d cherished for years, were gone, along with photographs of our younger days that were in frames around the house. On top of all this, quite a lot of furniture had been burnt. Gradually, over the next few months, we’d realise that this had vanished, or that couldn’t be found, precious things that we’d cherished and couldn’t replace. The worst disaster of the incident, as far as Mum was concerned, was the fact that she had spent years recording all the events in our lives, and the lot had vanished on that day as well. She was heart-broken, but of course, nobody knew anything about it. Her recordings would have certainly saved me a lot of work and research during the preparation of this narrative.
But the move was completed and my new home address became 142, Oxford Road, Reading, Berks. Mum wrote and told me of our new home after they’d moved. Derek and Val managed to get a flat a couple of doors down from Mum, so most of the family were still close to each other. It was a large terrace house and Mum kept up her work as a land-lady, taking the cream of her boarders with her, men like the ‘Hanrahan’s’ who had been with her from the very start.
Meanwhile, I was happily enjoying my new life in the army. Every day we’d learn something new and, as well as keeping my clothes neat and tidy, I added these to my evening work-outs. With determination, I practised marching turns, about turns, right and left turns, saluting on the march, saluting at the stand, and a dozen other military moves that were required to be perfect. I’d finish my clothes and bed-space, then spend half an hour making these moves, by number, and crashing my boots down on the wooden floor after each move. It’s probably just as well that my mates were enjoying themselves out on the town!
Slowly we were phased into the use and handling of rifles. I know that I never thought of them as a weapon with which to kill other men. They were just something that we used for shooting bullets at targets, even if the target was a picture of an ‘enemy’ charging towards me with his rifle at the ready. Nevertheless, I gave as much to the handling of my rifle as I gave to everything else. New moves with these rifles (I recall that I was sarcastically told that it was not a gun, it was a rifle and I wasn’t to forget it.) had to be learned and practised and I added these moves to my evening sessions.
Those rifles were Belgian FN Self-loading Repeaters and we learned how to clear stoppages, how to strip and re-assemble them, and how to march with them. We were told that, unless we were using the weapons, we had to keep them in our locker, under lock and key, as the army were worried that they would be stolen. Several lads forgot to lock their locker only to find that, during their absence, their rifles had gone missing. They had been forced to report the loss to the Sergeant (a harrowing experience, they told me) before the Sergeant would put them on fatigues, after telling them that it was he that had crept in and taken the rifles from unlocked lockers.
Finally we were taken down to the rifle range to ‘sight the rifles in’. One hundred yards from the targets, we blasted away, trying hard to do the right thing. I recall that my rifle was firing slightly to the left but, after adjusting the sights, I crept closer to the bullseye.
I remember that Dick made the mistake of pointing his rifle at the Sergeant when he complained that it wasn’t working. Within a split second the Sergeant had grabbed the barrel, forced it to one side, and toppled Dick onto his back. Dick wondered what he’d done as he lay there, but the Sergeant soon used him as an example of what would happen if a rifle was ever pointed at somebody again, loaded or unloaded. I never saw anybody from our platoon do it after that.
As well as all this, we were having lectures on military histories, tactics, unarmed combat, different weapons, politics, map reading, all the different ranks that we’d encounter in the army, hygiene, and a hundred other subjects that would prepare us for our chosen career. Sometimes it was almost like going back to school. After our first month of training we were given a weekend’s leave.
Full of excitement, we collected our pay and leave-passes, swarmed out of the gate and headed for Honiton station. It was the first time I’d been in Honiton since that first weekend when I went with Splitpin, I’d almost forgotten what civvie street was like. The only time I’d been out of the camp was on cross-country runs or down to the rifle range. A crowd of us got onto the train, but only Dick and I would get off at Basingstoke for the last part of our journey up to Reading. Noisy card games developed and a bit of boisterous fun was had. The ride from Basingstoke to Reading was very quiet in comparison.
Dick went his way and I found my new home. Everyone was pleased to see me and the weekend flashed by. It seemed that in no time Dick and I were on the train heading back to the camp. But there were only a couple of weeks to the long Christmas leave, so at least we still had that to look forward to.
The training continued with more marching, drilling, lectures, physical training, cross-country runs, and good fun on the assault-course. Then the morning arrived when the Christmas leave was due to begin.
As is my habit, I was naked in bed that morning although rules said that pyjamas had to be worn. I awoke to the sound of the hut door opening and looked over to see our Second Lieutenant, our Sergeant, and the two Corporals entering the hut, each carrying a tray. All of us new recruits were agog with amazement as, one by one, we were given breakfast in bed, and wished a merry Christmas by those men who usually bossed us about. Of course, the old lags, who had been in the army before, knew of the tradition where the lowly Privates were served their Christmas breakfast in bed by their superiors, but us new boys were flabbergasted.
I might have been lucky that it was Christmas for I was asked where my pyjamas were, and I mumbled something about being hot during the night (it was the middle of winter). Of course, it would have to be our Corporal that picked me up on it. But nothing more was said although I did expect it to be brought up again.
The Officer, Sergeant, and Corporals cleared our dirty trays away, and told us that we were free to do as we pleased until the middle of the afternoon when we could head off home. Most of us spent the rest of the time in the NAAFI until after dinner, playing noisy card games and larking around. After dinner we were finally issued with our leave passes, travel warrants, and the all important holiday pay, then there was the mad exodus down the road towards the railway station.
As Dick and I walked down the road with our mates, a lorry came by and Dick waved his thumb at it. The driver stopped, thinking that Dick had been trying to hitch a lift. Dick wanted to go on the train, but the sight of that open cab door was too much for me and I couldn’t resist climbing aboard. Waving goodbye to my mates, I was soon chatting to the driver as the lorry plodded along.
The lorry was a Ford ‘Thames Trader’ and the driver told me that he could take me as far as Basingstoke. That suited me as I knew that we’d be travelling up the A.303 road past Ilminster. He had a delivery to do in Wincanton, but he said that it wouldn’t take long.
As we travelled east, the weather closed in. Ilminster looked very forlorn as we passed through the top of the town, and I couldn’t see Hearne Hill through the mist that was getting thicker with each passing mile. I helped the driver with the delivery at Wincanton, then we were on our way again. It was dark by the time we reached Basingstoke and the threatening mists had turned into a thick fog.
The driver dropped me off at the Reading Road which, at that time, wasn’t very far from the station. I wondered if I should walk back down and catch a train up to Reading, but the thrill of hitch-hiking had got at me again and I decided to try a couple of cars and see how things went.
Through the fog I saw the glaring lights of a car coming up the short hill. I leaned as far out into the road as I could so that hopefully the driver would see me. As the car reached my spot, it swerved out into the middle of the road, then quickly pulled over to the curb and stopped. The driver said that I’d given him a bit of a fright.
But that was nothing to the frightening half an hour that I spent in the car with that driver. He told me that he was going to Reading and, with a bumpy hill-start, we set off as he crashed through the gears and stamped his foot hard down on the accelerator.
The car was a little Ford Popular. There were no seat belts in those days, and the driver was soon going at a break-neck speed. The fog was so thick that it was just as if a grey blanket was waving and swirling about in front of the windscreen. The lights reflected off the fog in a blinding (to me) glare. I mentioned that he might be going a bit too fast in the thick fog, but he told me not to worry as he knew the road like the back of his hand.
Well! Even at that time I knew that the rear lights of a vehicle in front wouldn’t show up quick enough for him to stop the car before a collision, and anyway, his eyes were looking down at the white line, not at the glaring fog in the front of the vehicle. It dawned on me that, if there was an accident up the road, we’d plough straight into it unless we had some warning. Then I realised that, as most batteries are in the front of vehicles, they could be damaged during a collision and there would be no lights to warn any approaching traffic, just black hulks waiting for any unsuspecting (or foolish) driver, until some uninjured person could run back up the road and warn approaching motorists. It gave me food for thought and I never forgot how I cringed down in my seat that night. It made me a safer driver in fog, and saved me from accidents on more than one occasion.
I prayed for the best and hung on grimly, but somehow we did reach Reading safely and I heaved a sigh of relief as we scooted down into the town centre. It was such a murky night that even the trolley buses were crawling along. Finally, I was at home in front of the warm fire and jolly grateful to still be alive. That Christmas leave is remembered for a couple of events in my life.
The first event was when Mum took me around to The Queen’s Head, the local pub in George Street, as I’d expressed a wish to get drunk (for some reason) by my own hand, instead of someone else doing it for me (was I trying to imitate what I thought was a manly thing to do?).
After numerous whiskeys and rums, I staggered back home where, according to Mum, I tried to feed Andy (our little dog) on one pound notes. Although I had no ill-effects after, I came to the conclusion that drinking alcohol wasn’t for me. But I was still smoking cigarettes, although, I had thought, at least they don’t make me drunk and do stupid things.
Another event was when Dick and I went up to London to meet some of our army mates as previously arranged. We all landed up in the Soho district and had a lot of fun going to the Newsreels, playing on the Underground a bit, and having a meal in one of the local cafes. It was on that trip that I got another distinguishing mark on my body.
We passed a Tattoo shop and I was dared to go in and have a tattoo done. As we were having such a good time, I took up the dare and it wasn’t long before I came out of the shop with a tattoo on my arm. It consisted of a red heart on my left forearm, with a dagger piercing it and a scroll across the front. The tattooist asked me what name I wanted on the scroll and I told him to put ‘Mum’ there and I’d be happy. When I returned home, Mum wasn’t too keen to see that I had a tattoo, but she soon melted when she saw the three letters on the scroll. That tattoo looked wonderful when it was first done, all vivid blues, reds, and greens, but over the years the colours have faded, scars and skin-cancer have knocked it about and it looks a bit of a mess now.
I also had my photograph taken, wearing my uniform, while
up in London that day, and I still have the negative from that
photo to scan for this story - although I feel that I looked more
like a convict than a soldier!
The rest of the night was spent in a dance hall type place (the sort of place that would be called a Disco now) and we rocked and smooched around with some of the local girls. The latest (to me) notable songs and music in the top ten were Marty Wilde’s ‘Tomorrow’s Clown’, ‘This Time’ by Troy Shondell, and ‘The Savage’ by The Shadows.
Christmas and the old year passed and 1962 was upon us. All
too soon the leave was over and Dick and I caught the train back
down to Honiton where we continued our training, and I continued
my evenings in the hut, cleaning, polishing and practising drill
movements. By that time there were a few new
songs in the charts that had taken my fancy.
‘Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen’ by Neil Sedaka had hit the top twenty, along with ‘The Young Ones’ by Cliff Richard, ‘Crying In The Rain’ by The Everley Brothers, and Chubby Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again Like We Did Last Summer’ (I couldn’t recall anybody ‘Twisting’ the previous summer!).
Then the snow came and everything was soon covered in its whiteness. But the days still seemed to be sunny to me, although there WAS the extra glare reflected from the snow over the camp and surrounding hills.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see Splitpin’s great hands as he stood to attention in front of me early one freezing morning, and almost sobbed because his hands were so cold. Those hands were blotched in purple, white, and blue and he was clenching them hard. Our Sergeant was good to Splitpin and let him rub his hands together now and again. For such a tall, thin lad, I’m sure that Splitpin didn’t have enough blood to get down into his enormous hands and warm them up a bit.
It was during that snowy period that I got into a situation that would end up with myself having a ‘grudge fight’ with one of the other lads.
In our hut was a young chap who had the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a man. He was very shy, had a pretty face, and neat little breasts that any young girl would have been proud of. Although we’d all been together in the same hut for the last couple of months and the chap had changed his clothes in front of us many times, none of us had given him a second glance. As far as we were concerned, he was one of the boys and we treated him so. Most of us were not even aware of his ‘extras’ until the beginning of the incident that would lead up to the grudge fight. He was ‘normal’ otherwise, and had been one of the boys that Dick and I had met up in London during the Christmas leave. I’d considered him to be one of my friends. But, there was an ugly brute in our hut who obviously had noticed the young lad’s ‘assets’. I shall call this brute ‘Jake’ in my story.
Jake was a bit of a loner and he seemed to growl about everyone and everything. His body was big, and he looked very strong in a handsome sort of way. But there was nothing handsome about his looks. A very high prominent forehead made his eyes, nose, and mouth seem as if they were squashed together in the lower part of his face, reminding me of a ‘Frankenstein’ monster. Most of us were a bit scared of Jake although, up to the time of the incident, he’d shown no animosity towards any of us. Jake said that he’d led a rough life and we believed him.
The young chap occupied the bed space directly opposite mine. One afternoon, while the snow was still on the ground, we were changing our uniforms and I became aware that Jake seemed to be annoying the young chap. I glanced across and saw that the young lad was sitting on his bed, naked from the waist up, with Jake standing over him. As I idly watched, I saw Jake’s hand fondle one of the breasts, and heard the brute make a crude suggestion as to whether the young chap fancied a man or a woman. The young lad was blushing with embarrassment, and looked as if he was about to burst into tears.
Although I hadn’t been prepared for such a scene, I sized up the situation within seconds. I was amazed at the sight of the little breasts, but suddenly sickly disgusted with Jake’s blatant advances, and the way he was trying to take advantage of a lad, that was both smaller and younger than himself, right there in front of us all, just because he was a bit different.
At that time, homosexuality was still a thing that wasn’t talked about much, even between a gang of crude mates. All my friends were the same, and women were (and still are) the object of our sexual desires. The thought that Jake might be a homosexual person didn’t enter my head (and he probably wasn’t). It just seemed that Jake was trying to satisfy some of his lusts (was he just attracted by ‘breasts’?) on the unfortunate chap just because he was so ugly himself that he couldn’t get anything else. Immediately it was unnatural to me and I saw red.
Without a thought of the consequences, I shouted at Jake to leave the lad alone. Like a flash, Jake had stormed across the room and was telling me to shut my mouth or he would shut it for me. In a rage of fury, I prepared to launch myself at the brute, regardless of the outcome.
But other, more sensible, heads had turned towards the scene, attracted by my initial shout at Jake. There was a rush of bodies from all directions and Jake and myself were held apart by our mates. One of the old lags wanted to know what the problem was (most of the lads hadn’t seen the start of the incident). Jake wouldn’t say anything, and I was still struggling to get at him. But, Splitpin, who was in the bed-space next to the young chap, had seen it all. Soon everyone knew what had happened and a couple of the lads went over to comfort the young chap, who was still sitting on his bed, topless, and looking very ashamed through no fault of his own.
At that point, nobody wanted any trouble. We were due out on the parade ground and most of us still hadn’t changed. Jake was quickly warned that, if he interfered with the young chap again, or took his revenge out on me, the whole hut would get him. I was warned that, if I insisted on having a go at Jake now that the matter was over, then I was on my own. Jake went back to his bed-space by the door and, as long as he left the young lad alone, I was happy to try and forget the incident.
But I don’t think that Jake wanted to forget. He was probably mad at me for having his ‘fun’ with the young chap stopped. He’d heard the warning to me from my friends regarding how I would be on my own if I insisted on having a go at him now that the matter was over and I think that he had decided to somehow get me to have that ‘go’ so that he could fix me for interfering. I soon began to notice that Jake always seemed to be in my way. With the main incident was over as far as I was concerned, I didn’t think too much of these little ‘accidental incidents’.
At first, it was little things like Jake beating me to the hut door then holding me up in the doorway while he checked to see if his boots were clean or something similar. Then twice he ‘accidentally’ bumped into me over in the ablution block. When he walked across my bed-space, to look out of the window ‘at the weather’, and ‘accidentally’ bumped into my locker, upsetting all my kit, I began to wonder what was going on. Each time there was an 'accident' he apologised. But I gradually realised that the apologies were getting more and more sarcastic. I began to get annoyed and told my friends that I’d had enough. They wanted to tell Jake to leave me alone, but I knew that only Jake and I could sort this one out, and I was ready for his next move. As luck (depending on how you looked at it) would have it, we were in the gym when things finally came to a head.
We were running around the floor of the gym during physical training when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jake’s foot shoot out. I was going fairly fast and had no chance of avoiding being tripped up, the next second I was sprawling along the floor. I knew that it had been deliberate. Jumping to my feet, I raced back at him with raised fists. He saw me coming and was ready.
But our Sergeant had also seen the incident and shouted at us both to halt. He came straight over and told us that he wouldn’t have any brawling in his platoon. He suggested that, if we had any differences, we could sort them out in the correct manner by going three rounds in the boxing ring. I was angry and agreed to his suggestion without thinking. Within minutes we were in the ring with boxing gloves on, and all our mates were gathered round with a look of expectancy on their faces. By that time I was cursing my quick temper and feeling very lonely as I looked across the ring at Jake in the far corner. The only consolation I had was the thought that I was doing this for our young mate. It helped to make the thrashing I was about to get seem worth it.
Most of the lads from the other hut (Dick was in that hut) knew the whole story and were behind me. But everybody wanted to see blood - anyone’s blood. As my friends were wishing me luck and telling me to do my best, there didn’t seem to be much hope for me by the sound of their voices. But at least I had somebody behind me, Jake was almost on his own except for a couple of ‘Toadies’ (from the other hut) who must have thought they’d gain something by supporting him. I think that, to most of the lads from the other hut, the fight was a break from work and it didn’t really matter who won as long as it was exciting. I was just the more popular lad in the ring.
The Sergeant called us both out into the middle of the ring and told us that we would fight clean. No hitting below the belt, no head-butting or kicking, and no biting (he must have seen some terrible brawls!). He said that we’d go three rounds, unless one of us was injured or knocked out for a count of ten (looking my way!). Then he stepped back (he was our referee) and told us to get on with it.
Right from the start I was determined that I wouldn’t let Jake see how much he worried me. I decided that, while I was still on my feet, I’d keep going towards him as if I had all the confidence in the world. We were both really only brawlers, but it sounded as if he’d had a lot more experience than I had, according to his stories. He was a bit taller than I was, with a longer reach, but I was a bit younger and more agile. I wasn’t used to being tied down to boxing rules and I don’t think that Jake was either, we were both the get-in-and-mix-it type. But I knew that I’d have to try and stay as calm as possible this time, just going forward if I could and hoping for a break before I was broken.
As the Sergeant blew his whistle for the start of round one, Jake came quickly out of his corner as if he was going to overwhelm me. As I went out towards him he hesitated a fraction, as if he hadn’t expected me to be coming his way. As usual, I can recall the events as if they were only yesterday and I remember that, fractional though it was, that slight hesitation made me feel a lot more confident that I wouldn’t go down without a fight if I could keep calm and keep advancing. That first round seemed the longest as we tried to size each other up and threw a couple of testing punches apiece. The sound of my mates shouting at me to ‘give ‘im one’ seemed to fade to a quiet roar as I concentrated on trying to keep Jake away from me without getting clobbered. But it was advance and retreat for both of us as we tried to stay clear of the swinging clenched gloves during that first round.
The second round was very similar at first, advancing, retreating, poking, and tapping, missing with a couple of good swings and generally trying to feel each other out. My mates were shouting at me to get on with it but, as the round progressed, I was settling down and looking for my chance. I’d gone nearly two rounds and was beginning to think that I might get away with it, my confidence was going up by notches.
Then it came! An explosion in the head that sent me reeling back.
All I could do was swing my arms out in front of me and try to keep the advancing Jake at bay. As my head cleared, I began to realise that, if I was going to go down, then I’d go down fighting with everything I had and the Sergeant could do what he liked with his rules. Those rules were tying me down (I knew little about boxing rules, no more than Jake probably did), now I wanted to get in and fight. I tried hard not to get rattled but, with this new determination, I stormed at Jake and began to lash out at him. Then he was backing up and I felt the satisfying thud as my gloved fists made contact with his body a couple of times. The shouting from the thirty odd lads of our platoon sounded almost as if they were a crowd at the Wembley Stadium. They could see that the fight was hotting up and that’s what they wanted. Just as I was feeling a lot better, the whistle blew for the end of the round.
As I sat in the corner (we had no seconds, it was only a resting period) my mates were giving me lots of advice, mostly to get in there and finish him off. I wasn’t that confident, the stunning blow to the side of my head had rocked me almost off my feet, and I knew that if Jake had pressed his advantage and come through my flailing arms, he would have had me. There were three more minutes of fighting to go and this, I hoped, would be the deciding round. I knew that somehow I had to be on my feet at the end of it. Our Sergeant came over to make sure that I was alright and still wanted to continue into the final round (did I have a choice?). With a blast of his whistle it was on again and I resigned myself to my fate.
I didn’t see Jake race across the ring, all I can remember is looking up at a flash of brown leather before I felt another of those stunning blows to the side of my head. It wasn’t as bad as the other one, but I became annoyed at the thought that Jake had got across the ring and hit me before I was ready (to be fair, the whistle had blown to start the round before he moved, I should have been more prepared). As I lost my reason, all caution was thrown out of the window and I didn’t care what happened, I was going to get Jake and only he could stop me. As I bored into him with a fury that had my mates roaring with approval, he moved back and I came on. Then I saw a bit of blood on his lip, it seemed to drive me to new heights of determination. I could feel blows striking my body, but my whole self was concentrating on his head and chest. The shouts of our mates had faded again and there was only Jake in my vision with blackness all around.
Blow after blow were swapped as the pair of us advanced, retreated, dodged, and punched. I’d forgotten about surviving, all thoughts of staying calm had vanished and I was very angry. This brute was hurting me and I wanted to hurt him. We both took a turn at being caught up on the ropes, I received a good blow to the ribs before I could force Jake back and get off them. But mostly, I can only recall my fury and swapping punches as the pair of us dodged around the ring.
Then suddenly it was over. Our Sergeant came between us (we hadn’t heard the whistle) and told us that the round had ended. Both Jake and I immediately collapsed thankfully to the floor, we were that breathless and spent, and the Sergeant waited while we settled down a bit. After all the excited shouting, our mates were standing around the ring almost silent in expectation, probably wondering what would happen next.
When we’d both regained our breaths a bit, the Sergeant asked Jake if he’d had enough and he answered that if I was happy then so was he. The Sergeant put the same question to me. I was still angry and answered that if Jake was satisfied, then I’d be happy, otherwise we might just as well fight on (I remember that the Sergeant looked at me sideways as if I was mad). Everyone seemed to relax and a hubbub of chatting began around the ring.
But the Sergeant hadn’t finished with Jake and I. He told us both to be sure that we were happy with the outcome because, if we couldn’t see eye to eye, then there were other ways of settling our disputes. Of course, the Sergeant wasn’t aware of the real cause that had started the dispute in the first place. He probably thought that I couldn’t take a friendly joke like being tripped up in the gym. Nevertheless, his warning was directed fairly at both of us, and I for one wanted things to be as they were before Jake had made advances to our young friend.
With that in mind I looked Jake fair and square in the eyes and asked him if we could rely on him to do the right thing in future. Jake obviously knew that I was asking him to leave my young friend and myself alone, and I think he knew that I wouldn’t rest until I’d got my own way. I hadn’t beaten him in the ring, but maybe he’d sensed how determined a person could be when that person feels a wrong is being done. Without averting his eyes from mine Jake answered that there would be no more trouble so I need not worry.
But things went better than that. Jake suddenly seemed to be less of a loner. He stopped growling about everything and was soon joining in with some of our fun. Even as the Sergeant made the pair of us shake hands, Jake was smiling and his face seemed to lighten up and lose some of its ugliness. Before long Jake had become one of the boys and the fight had been completely forgotten, apart from being slotted into my memory bank as another incident in my life.
I don’t think that Jake was a bad chap. I feel that he found it hard to mix with others at first, making himself lonely and rebellious until he could be accepted into the circle. He’d built a wall around himself in that hut and none of us had tried to penetrate it until after the fight. The chances are that he wanted a bit of attention from somebody, the incident could have started as a joke, even if it was a bit crude, that backfired when I put my five cents worth in. But none of us saw it like that at the time. I’m sure that the other boys wouldn’t have treated the young lad like it even if we had noticed that he was different, we were his friends and wouldn’t have said anything about it. He couldn’t help having what he had. He was a mate, he enjoyed having a rough and tumble, and he seemed very happy to be in on our mischief.
And Jake turned out to be the same. He acted tough until you got to know him. Then he was just one of the boys as well, ready for any mischief that would give us a laugh. Just as after other fights, I felt lucky at the outcome and was glad to get the problem sorted. Apart from a lot of soreness around the upper body, neither of us were badly hurt, and soon it was just as if the fight had never happened. And I didn’t see Jake make any advances to the young lad for the rest of the time that I was at the camp.
Meanwhile, we were all getting on with the job of learning to be soldiers. On the 17 th. January I gave blood for the first time. A blood donation unit arrived at the camp and we all ‘volunteered’ (did we have a choice?) to give a pint each. That blood donation unit must have had a field day for I suspect that every soul in the camp gave blood and there were long queues waiting when our group arrived. I suppose that it was better to give blood for the help of others rather than keep spilling it. I found out that my blood type was group 0 RH. Positive.
The snow melted in the middle of January and we had some quite mild weather for that time of the year. Splitpin’s great hands returned to their normal colour and things became a lot more cheerful with those snowy days gone. Our training was designed to get us as fit as possible. We did plenty of cross-country runs in shorts and singlets, as well as jogging in full battle-dress and webbing. I recall one of those funny scenes, that seem to be forever photographed in one’s mind, from one of the keep-fit jogs.
In full fatigue clothes and webbing, we had to run up a hill, cross over the ridge, charge down the other side as if we were attacking the enemy, jump over a deep stream, then form up on the far bank. The uphill bank of the stream was a lot higher than the downhill bank, so we had a good jumping off ramp to help us over to safety even if the drop was a bit high and rather frightening.
Up the hill we raced until, breathless with bursting lungs, we went over the ridge and started to hurl down towards the valley. Yelling and yahooing as if a whole army of the ‘enemy’ were entrenched on the other side of that stream, we charged down the hill, jumping over tussocks of grass and being pushed ever faster by the weight of our gear. I could see Dick in front of me and his breath was coming out of his mouth in short bursts of visible vapour. One lad went sprawling just in front of me and I had to hurriedly side-step to avoid stomping my boots over his body. The high bank of the stream was coming up fast and the first few lads were vanishing over the edge of that bank. With a blood-curdling yell, Dick dropped out of sight about twenty feet in front of me, then it was my turn.
I tried to judge the enormous leap as I reached the high edge of the bank, in a flash I’d launched myself into thin air, the stream blurred past under my feet and the far side was coming up fast. Then suddenly, as if a film had been stopped on one frame, my brain took in a scene that has remained as almost a photograph ever since.
In that split moment of time, I looked down and could see Dick struggling in the deep, icy water of the stream against the weight of his gear. The back and shoulders of his battle-dress blouse were swollen by the air trapped inside, and his arms were going like mad out in front of him as he attempted a sort of dog-paddle to try and stay above the water until he was rescued. He really looked as if he was drowning. Then things started moving again as I hurtled towards the lower bank. With a bone-jarring thud, I landed on dry land, rolled over a couple of times, then picked myself up.
By the time I’d turned around, Dick was being ‘rescued’ from the stream, looking like a drowned rat with water running out of his clothes in rivers. The exhilaration of running down the hill, my success at clearing the stream, the ingrained memory of Dick struggling in the water, and the sight of his water-logged body being dragged from the deep, was all too much for me. I collapsed in an uncontrolled fit of laughter and ‘Monty’ himself couldn’t have stopped me. It was quite a while before I could settle down again.
The fitter we seemed to get, the more fitter the army seemed to want us to be. Gradually our fitness started to be combined with tactics as the army moulded us into real soldiers. Almost gone were the hours of marching and lectures, and the feelings of being something just dragged in off the streets. We were all fast gaining confidence as the Sergeant worked hard to ensure that we went to our respective regiments with a degree of professional competence that would see all of us given a good start in our chosen career. By this time he seemed to be concentrating on our fitness and weapon training, and as we learned how to strip down and re-assemble various weapons, I felt that the ‘raw recruit’ stage had passed and now we were getting into the ‘nitty-gritty’ side of things. It was during this ‘combining’ stage, when it seemed that our Sergeant was trying to bring our fitness and weapon training together, that another memorable event occurred in my life, and even now I wonder about it.
The target area for the rifle range was on the side of a gently sloping hill. As an exercise, the plan was that we would run up the range from five hundred yards, blasting five rounds into our targets at one hundred yard intervals. At each firing stage we had to take up a different firing stance (standing, kneeling, laying, etc.) as we let fly. There wasn’t enough targets for the whole platoon so we had been split up for this exercise. Three or four high-ranking officers had come from somewhere and were up in the target area with our officers, presumably to see how we were progressing. With full magazines and rifles at the ready, our portion of the platoon waited for the off.
A whistle blew and we squeezed off five rounds at our targets. Then, with the Sergeant running beside us shouting encouragement and advice, we raced up to the four hundred yard marker and squeezed off another five rounds. On we charged, stopping at each marker to bang away at our targets until we’d fired our last round at the one hundred yard marker and the exercise was over. Out of breath, we put the safety catches to ‘safe’, cleared our rifles and had them inspected. Then we were told to sit and rest while the results were checked by the ‘Big brass’.
As I sat with my mates, our breaths gradually getting back to normal, I joined in with the excited chatter as we re-lived the exercise again. Then suddenly we all became aware that a lot of shouting and commotion had started up from the direction of where the ‘Big brass’ were, over in the target area. As we looked that way, I heard my name being shouted out by our Sergeant who was amongst that group of officers. A physical jolt clutched at my stomach as I ran at the double towards that group of high-ranking men, full of apprehension as to what I could have been summoned for.
All eyes were on me as I crossed the ground between my mates, in who’s company I had felt safe, and the officers, in who’s company I felt completely out of my depth. None of the officers were showing any expression of either sterness or compassion. I remember that they were all just looking at me as if interested as to who I was.
But, I knew who I was, I was just a mere Private who hadn’t even completed three months training. Officers were the ‘gods’ of the army and, from what I could gather at the time, never spoke to a Private unless he was in trouble. I’d have given a months pay to be allowed to go back to the haven of my group of mates, but it wasn’t to be.
The officers were standing in front of my target, looking my way, as I stopped, snapped to attention, and saluted. At that second, I wouldn’t have cared one iota if an earthquake had occurred and I’d been swallowed up. The Sergeant asked me if the target was mine and I told him that it was (all the targets were numbered). The bit of my target that I could see over the shoulders of those officers didn’t have one bullet hole anywhere. I groaned inwardly, they were going to give me a ‘rocket’ for missing the target. I wondered how I could have done such a thing as I’d taken careful aim each time I’d fired my rifle. I was told to ‘stand easy’, but I couldn’t relax at all.
I only knew two of the officers, our Second Lieutenant, and the Adjutant (I think) who, behind his back, we called ‘Babyface’. There were four or five other officers (ranks unknown to me now), the Sergeant, and the two Corporals. The top-ranking officer there asked me if I’d done a lot of shooting. I quickly wondered how I could defend myself for missing the target, then I decided to just be honest and tell the truth. I already knew that our Sergeant was a fair man and I had every faith in him that he would sort out my problem and get me hitting the target again. I told them how I’d only ever shot coins and plastic soldiers off the wall with the air rifle down in the cellar of our old house and, apart from the air rifle ‘wars’ that I’d played, where I’d aimed to miss anyway, that was about it. Without answering me, he motioned the other men to stand aside so that I could see all of my target.
In the first instant, my eyes flashed around the outside of the target, looking for the tell-tale holes. There were none. As my eyes tracked towards the centre bullseye, I suddenly spotted a ragged, three centimetre, almost square hole a bit to the left of the centre dot. I remember thinking to myself that at least I had hit the target. My face must have registered surprise at being so near the bull, for the ‘big knob’ suddenly smiled and I glanced around to see all the others dutifully smiling as well. It dawned on me that I wasn’t going to be told off after all and I felt a bit better. Then the officer spoke again and his words astonished me as I listened.
He told me that he was amazed at my accuracy with a rifle. He went on to explain that it was obvious that, one by one, all my bullets had passed through that ragged hole, and it was one of the most incredible bits of shooting that he’d ever seen from a raw recruit. He congratulated me and told me to keep up the good work, then asked our Sergeant to call the other lads over for a look.
At that time, I wasn’t worried about the hole in my target. I was just relieved to be able to lose myself amongst the crowd that came over and gathered a discreet distance from the ‘Big brass’ to see what all the fuss had been about. As far as us lesser mortals were concerned, that was the end of the incident, but it would be brought up again soon under different circumstances.
Even all these years later, I’m still very suspicious about that ‘fluke of luck’. As usual, the whole incident is very clear in my mind.
At first, in spite of what the officer had said, I suspected that I might have had a few lucky shots and completely missed the target with all the other bullets, although I had aimed very carefully at each firing position in the run up the range. As far as I could see, even if my aim had been out a bit, there should have been at least half a dozen holes somewhere else on the target. With all this in mind, I didn’t feel that I’d earned the praise and congratulations that were being heaped on me. (A few years later my mother-in-law would happily stand sideways, twenty five paces from me, while I shot cigarette ends from her mouth with a high-powered air rifle - and that air rifle had no back sights. It was a ‘party piece’ that she and I performed many times and she trusted my aim with the trust of a circus knife-thrower’s assistant.)
With that little bit of ‘encouragement’ under my belt, I continued the training and worked harder each evening. I did everything in my power to ensure that my clothes, kit and bed-space were spotless, neat, and tidy, in fact, as perfect as I could make them. I even had a ‘go’ at Splitpin one evening for tramping across my polished floor in his boots. At every inspection, our Sergeant would cast his eyes over my form then walk on to the next man in line, and I’d feel good that I’d passed another scrutiny.
Then one morning, with barely more than a couple of weeks to go before we would finish the training and be sent to our regiments, I was standing in line for the usual daily inspection. Our Sergeant reached me and was just about to pass on, then he hesitated. I couldn’t believe it as he instructed our Corporal to take my name as I had a bit of shaving soap behind one of my ears.
At first I rebelled. I raged against the Sergeant and the army for worrying about such a petty detail. But then, gradually, I realised that the army hadn’t let me down, I’d let myself down. Our Sergeant had only been doing his job and he’d done it well. I had only myself to blame for overlooking that bit of shaving soap. The Sergeant, as I well knew, was looking for perfection and I hadn’t been perfect enough. But this, and an incident that happened at the end of the same week, caused me to become discontent with my lot once again.
Feeling miserable and annoyed that my name had been taken, I spent a chastened day out on manoeuvres with my mates, where I could forget about parades and inspections for a while. Then, that evening, another memorable event occurred that would lead up to my mates and I going into fits of suppressed laughter and, at the same time, would make me realise that officers were not so ‘Godly’.
One of our mates had smuggled a ‘Thunderflash’ (a large firework used for representing grenades, that were thrown at soldiers while playing wars) back into our hut after we’d been out on manoeuvres that day. I recalled how we used to put ‘Bangers’ (exploding fireworks) under up-turned tins, when I was younger, and blow the tins up into the air. It was decided that we’d try a similar thing that night.
In each hut was a pot-bellied fire, fuelled by coke. A store of coke was kept in a small galvanised tin bath, with handles at each end, that stood beside the fire. We thought that, as the Thunderflash was larger than a Banger, the tin bath would be ideal for our prank.
For the first time during my actual training period, I went down to the town for the evening with my mates (due to the shaving cream affair, I’d given up a bit on trying so hard). It was fairly late when we returned to the camp, but everyone agreed that we’d still play our prank, the lateness of the hour would add to the excitement. Laughing and giggling to each other, we emptied the coke onto a towel (so that it would be easier and quicker to refill the bath). Between our hut and the railway line was a bit of space where we placed the up-turned bath over the lighted Thunderflash and stood back to watch the results.
There was a flash, a resounding bang and the bath vanished up into the darkness before coming back down to land with a clatter. It was well after lights out and, grabbing the bath we ran helter-skelter back into the hut, laughing in the usual uncontrolled manner. Suddenly whistles started to blow and shouting could be heard from down near the Admin blocks and the front gate.
In the darkness somebody hissed at us to hurry up and refill the bath with the coke. But somebody else said that we couldn’t as the bottom of the bath had completely disappeared. We thought that we’d had it until a suggestion was made that we place the bath on the floor and tip the coke black in so that it all looked normal. That plan was adopted and we just had time to dive into our beds before the hut door burst open and the room was filled with shouting and the stomp of boots.
Our Corporal was amongst the group who charged into the hut and he demanded to know what had caused the loud bang. Although most of us knew that the bath bottom would probably be found and traced to us, we said that we knew nothing about the bang. We could see, by the flash of many torches outside, that a real ‘hornet’s nest’ had been stirred up. You would have thought that a whole ‘enemy’ army had attacked the camp. Men were running about, orders were being shouted and eyes were blinded by the full glare of torch lights. We laid low and let them get on with it.
Finally, things quietened down and, with the knowledge that a security guard was now patrolling the perimeter fence to protect us from further ‘attacks’, we fell into a peaceful sleep.
The next morning at room inspection, a strange officer accompanied our Second Lieutenant and Sergeant as they inspected our hut and went through our gear with more than the usual thoroughness. We suspected that the authorities smelt a rat over the previous night’s incident and were looking for any little clues as to the cause of the ‘mysterious’ bang. The bath bottom hadn’t been found yet, and we were wondering what would happen when it was discovered and traced to our bath (visions of being questioned under a bright desk-lamp had some of us chuckling). Little did that strange officer (or ourselves) realise how close he would come to learning the truth about the previous night’s event, especially if the bath bottom was found and he knew of the practice where a tin was placed over a lighted Banger.
The group worked their way anti-clockwise around the room, taking names for many petty faults at all the bed-spaces. Finally they reached Jake’s bed-space, the last to be inspected before they left us to worry about the extra inspection that we had to endure later that day so that the officer could see if we’d rectified the faults. The pot-bellied stove was in the middle of the room at the end of Jake’s bed-space and was usually the last item to be inspected. Each of us took it in turns to keep this area clean and tidy.
After Jake’s name had been taken for his ‘faults’, the officer turned his attention to the stove. The bottom flap was lifted and the top lid removed so that he could peer down inside to make sure that it was clean and, presumably, there was nothing hidden in it. Satisfied, he closed the lid and flap, checked the poker and shovel, then idly gave the tin bath a kick. Us down the far end of the hut were straining our eyes sideways to try and see how things were going as the group passed each bed-space and worked its way back up towards the door. But none of us could resist looking along in that direction when he let out a shout and seemed to become very excited. The bath had moved on the slippery, polished floor as he idly kicked it, and he could see signs of coke dust where the bath had been.
This was a real fault, not just a petty thing to pick on just to keep us knuckled under. The strange officer grabbed at the handles to lift the bath aside so that, I suppose, he could see if there was any more coke dust underneath. In a flash, he had the bath at thigh height and his eyes were peering down towards the spot where the bath had been. For a split second the coke seemed to hang up in the bottom-less bath then, with a roar and a billow of dust, the coke shot out and showered the officer’s uniform trousers and boots before hitting the floor and bouncing off in all different directions.
Every private in that room snapped eyes front and bit hard on tongue or lip to try and stop the laughter that threatened to engulf their bodies. I know that, although I was standing ramrod straight, my whole body was an agony of laughing convulsions bursting to get out.
But, none of us so much as dared to bat an eyelid as the officers glared around the room, demanding to know who was responsible for the broken bath. Of course, nobody answered. With a final glare around the room, the strange officer ordered that we were to have two inspections a day for a whole week, all evening leave was cancelled (except for the coming weekend leave) and the bath had to be fixed by that afternoon’s inspection. Then the group stormed out leaving us to collapse in the usual helpless laughter.
I wasn’t particularly worried by the extra inspections or evenings confined to barracks. A few of the lads took a chance and slipped out of camp over the back fence as the new guards became more casual, but I didn’t bother. The bath was no problem, we just crept into another hut when nobody was around and exchanged their bath for ours, leaving it exactly as we’d left it the night that the bottom had been lost. As for that bottom, we never did find it and could only suppose that it had been blasted over into the wood on the other side of the railway line. The bottom-less bath went around the huts as each inspection revealed its latest home, and our Sergeant told us that bets were being taken as to which hut the bath would be found in at each inspection. I suspect that we got off so lightly over the bath incident because we were near the end of our training. I never knew if the real truth ever came out about the incident.
Then it was the Friday afternoon and we had to go on a big parade before a large group of high-ranking officers. After the parade, we’d be free to go on the weekend leave with just two more weeks of training left before our passing-out parade. We were a nice, clean, compact platoon who marched almost perfectly, had been well trained in army drill movements, and were probably as good as those guards that had looked so neat and tidy in the guard house the night I’d arrived at the camp. We were all looking forward to showing off our new skills, and we wanted to make a good impression so that we could enjoy our leave knowing that we’d done well.
Our gear was all packed, ready for the race out of the camp after the parade, and we were assembled into ranks outside of the hut so that we could march smartly onto the parade ground rather than having to sort ourselves out in front of the officers. As we marched onto the big square, I could see the officers up on a large platform that had been erected along one side. Most of us realised that this was more than just a parade for the benefit of the camp officers, there were a lot of strange officers up on that platform.
We swung neatly onto the parade ground and joined the lines of soldiers already marching around the square. Our Sergeant called the command for ‘eyes right’ as we passed the officers for the first time, then our Second Lieutenant took over. As we approached the end of the square, where we were to turn left and march along at right angles to our present path, the Second Lieutenant called the command to ‘left wheel’.
But, he called the command on the right foot instead of the left.
Suddenly, our platoon was in chaos. It threw most of us and, the more we gave a skip to try and rectify things, the more we looked like a shambling mess. Our Sergeant raced around shouting orders, and gradually we became the compact order of soldiers that had entered the square.
Although we had no more trouble as we marched past those officers half a dozen more times, the damage had been done as far as most of us were concerned, we were all bitterly disappointed. It had taken the Sergeant’s quick thinking and skill to get us back to normal but, it need not have happened. Immediately I had thought that, if an officer could make such a simple mistake on the parade ground, what kind of other mistakes could be made in more serious situations? To me at the time, an officer should have been perfect and know his job, that was why he was an officer and could order me about. Now, in one fell swoop, our officer had made a mistake, ruined our march-past and I wasn’t very happy about it at all. At that moment I lost all confidence in our officer and suddenly realised that the army life, with (as I thought at the time) all its petty rules and rivalries, was not for me after all. I had made a mistake and knew that I wouldn’t want to do six years of army life. I didn’t feel any more of a man than I did when I first joined up and, all at once, I wanted to get out.
During that weekend leave, I told Mum what had happened,
how I’d been so disappointed with myself over the shaving
soap incident, and then annoyed at the officer’s mistake.
She explained to me that I couldn’t expect to be perfect
myself, and that I shouldn’t expect others to be perfect.
But, I wasn’t satisfied and decided to try and get out of
the army altogether. I felt that, if my heart was no longer in
it, then I might as well not waste the army’s time any
There was a scheme at that time where, if a recruit had thought he’d made a mistake and didn’t think that he was cut out for the army life, he could buy himself out for twenty pounds. I decided to use this scheme and buy myself out of the army. I didn’t have that amount of money on me so Mum pawned her typewriter and we managed to scrape up the twenty pounds between us.
Back in the camp on the Monday morning, I told our Sergeant of my decision. He said that he was very surprised as I’d seemed such a keen recruit. He asked me what the problem was and, not wishing to get anyone into trouble or cause any upsets, I answered that I had made a mistake and had changed my mind about wanting an army career. He then suggested that I give the matter a couple of more days thought, and meanwhile he would have a word with our officer. I told him that I wouldn’t change my mind, but I’d do as he had suggested.
A couple of days later, I approached our Sergeant again and told him that I still wanted out. This time he arranged for me to have an interview with our Second Lieutenant. In his office, the Second Lieutenant listened as I explained again how I had realised that I’d made a mistake and didn’t want to stay in the army any longer. Once more it was suggested that I give the matter some thought. I was beginning to panic now as I knew that I was only eligible to buy myself out through the scheme while I was in training. I didn’t know how long it would take to get things moving, there was less than a week and a half left, and it seemed to me that I was being stalled until it would be too late. I told him that I had definitely made up my mind and he arranged to interview me again the next day.
The following day I was called into the office again. As our Sergeant and I came to attention in front of the Second Lieutenant, I saw that there was a Captain standing over by the window. The Second Lieutenant asked me if I’d changed my mind and I answered that I hadn’t. For half an hour or so I was cross-examined as he tried to find the cause of my dissatisfaction. But I stuck to my story that I’d made a mistake and wasn’t happy in the army anymore (which was the truth really).
Finally, the Captain picked up a file that had been laying on the desk. My name was written on the top of the file but that was all that I could see as the Captain studied the contents. Then he looked up with a ‘let’s be friends’ smile and told me that I’d shown a lot of promise while I’d been in training (this statement had our Sergeant and Second Lieutenant nodding in agreement). He said that if I kept up the good work I was sure to be made up to a Corporal just after I joined my regiment (more nods from the other two). He went on to tell me that, owing to the good show that I’d put on at the rifle range a couple of weeks earlier, my regiment already had its eye on me as a possible contender for them in the shooting competitions at Bisley, and that I’d as good as earned my ‘Marksman’s’ badge (vigorous nods from the other two).
But I stuck to my guns and explained that I wasn’t interested in being a Corporal nor any shooting badges. I told them that I’d made up my mind, the twenty pounds was in my hand, and I just wanted to pay the money, sign the papers and go. We all argued back and forth, them promising this and that, and myself refusing to be tempted. Finally they could see that it was no use, I paid the money and the papers were signed there and then.
The next day was a whirl of preparations for leaving the army. All my kit and clothes had to be returned to the stores, along with my bedding, etc. While my mates were still training for their final passing-out parade, I was racing to the laundry to rescue clothes, running back and forth to the stores with bundles and kit-bags, taking my rifle back to the armoury, and making sure that my business with the army was completed to their satisfaction. By mid afternoon, I’d done everything, said goodbye to my mates and was knocking at the door of the pay office.
As if he had all the time in the world, the Pay-master sorted out my money while I stood there in a fever of impatience to be gone. With the money, at last, in my pocket, I passed on to our Second Lieutenant where I collected my army reference. The reference stated that my army conduct had been ‘Very Good’. Finally, I passed out of the gates for the last time and realised that, once again, I was a civilian. It felt great!
I hitch hiked home, mainly to save my train fare, and it was dark by the time I arrived in Reading. But, not too late for me to go around the local pub to buy Mum and John a celebration drink.
I’d never met my own father. He had married again and his wife had given birth to two boys. The oldest of those two boys joined the army and was sent to Heathfield camp for training a couple of weeks after I had left. The same officer, Sergeant, and Corporal would be in charge of his platoon. That was how near I came to meeting my step-brother, and probably meeting my father as a result. I’d have to wait over a quarter of a century more before I finally met up with them.
And so, back in ‘civvy-street’ I still didn’t know what it was that I was looking for in life. That ‘something’ was still being sought by my inner self. During the next year, I would nearly go off the straight and narrow, then find that ‘something’ that would bring me back into line again and give me a new lease of life. Meanwhile, I had to pick up the threads of a normal way of living again.
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