Life in the army
1st September is a date that will prove significant throughout my life. Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st 1939 and by 1st September
1949 I was involved in a long train journey from Weston-super-Mare to Richmond in Yorkshire to join the British Army. On arrival there we, a motley crew of 18 year-olds from all walks of life, loaded our suitcases into an army lorry for Transport to the Royal armoured core’s training camp at Catterick.
That was the start of six weeks intensive training which was called square-bashing and included the drill, the uniforms, the bull, the physical training, the medical, the injections, all very intensive but reasonably tolerable.
We were not allowed out of the camp for the first six weeks, even if anybody had the energy to consider it, we were comfortably housed in what we knew as Monty blocks, so called because field Marshal Montgomery had strived after the war to improve the living conditions of his soldiers.
We were actually paid for being in the army, only a few pounds a week, and I had been persuaded that I should make provision for my mother, “in case anything happened to me”, and so 10 shillings of my meagre pay was sent home to my mother as an allowance.
The six weeks passed eventually and we passed out like soldiers, I never mentioned my injured knee and six weeks of marching up and down the parade ground for three or four hours a day sorted it out, we had a group photograph taken and I look back in amazement at how skinny I was when I was 18.
We were moved into older Nissen hut type accommodation to make way for the next intake, by this time it was mid-October and Yorkshire was getting quite chilly, the Nissen huts housed about 20 and had two round coke burning stoves in the middle of the room, If you really tried you could get them red hot from near the bottom to several feet up the stove pipe.
We were still busy with all sorts of things like educational classes, five-mile cross-country runs, fatigues such as “ spud bashing” I have never seen so many potatoes before or since. And the guard duties, now they were no fun, one by one we were dumped in the vehicle park to patrol the rows of trucks for two hours each shift, absolutely pitch black, just a few fireflies which you could gather on the end of your pick handle, and eerily silent, miles from anyone it was a good job I was not a nervous type
My army life was interrupted at this time by the death of my Father who had been unwell over the previous year. I was given a few days compassionate leave to return to Weston Super Mare for his funeral and internment in Ashcombe Road cemetery.
On my return to the camp I discovered that I had been chosen to form part of the honour guard for the Catterick Headquarters, this did involved a lot more bull but on the whole was very interesting, a different sort if guard duty instead of having a piece of wood called a pick helve we actually had guns and ammunition, like being a real solder.
Also on the agenda at this time was learning to drive, a mad sergeant with a piece of wood to rap your knuckles if you didn't get it right, a two-ton truck and about six hours was all that was needed to turn the average soldier into an army driver.
On to the next phase of our training we were all transferred to a training camp at Norton Manor near Taunton, and only 40 miles from Weston Super Mare, to do our technical training and turn us into “B” vehicle mechanics, this type of vehicle is classified as not armoured, I think the course lasted 12 or 14 weeks and during the course of this we were also “requested” to volunteer as blood donors.
My training was interrupted two days after giving blood, I had to report sick and was diagnosed as having influenza and tonsillitis, you cannot lie about in the barracks if you're sick, you have to go to hospital, fine just what I needed, unfortunately to go to hospital you have to pack all your kit and take your mattress, bedding and pillow to the quartermaster stores and hand them in, and not a very pleasant task when you only half alive.
I was in hospital for about two weeks recovering, the compensation was that Bertha was able to visit me whilst I was there; I think it was Musgrove Park hospital and after an uneventful recovery I returned to the camp to continue my training.
It was shortly after this that I was involved in a fight in the barracks when three drunks returning from a night out invaded us in the middle of the night, they finished up being sent back to their regiments and I finished up with a broken nose.
Due to my previous training the course was relatively easy for me and proceeded to the end without further incident, so without further ado about half the course participants and myself were now shipped off to Bovingdon, camp down in Dorset. This was where we did the next training course, which turned us into “A” vehicle mechanics, we trained on the latest armoured fighting vehicle the army had, the 50-ton Centurion tank.
This part of my technical training was not very eventful and pretty basic just a different vehicle which was big and heavy, anyway I managed to get a pass mark of 94% and the offer of being a lance corporal that I promptly refused.
Returning to Catterick we hung about for a few weeks I got chosen to be part of the Catterick Headquarters Honour Guard this only involved a further week of spit and polish but was quite an experience with lots of top brass visiting.
Shortly after this I was thinking I had only six more months to do before demobilisation when they suddenly decided to move us to the drafting wing, strange I thought why would they send us overseas with only a short while to do, but they knew more than we did and whilst we there the government announced that National Service was to be extended to two years, so that explained everything but I was not pleased.
A week later and we were on our way to Padderbourn in southern Germany as part of The British Army Occupying the Rhine, I joined the 5th Royal Enniskillen Dragoon Guards, all five foot eight inches of me, but it makes sense to have smaller men climbing in and out of tanks with small hatches.
Army life in Germany at that time was relaxed and interesting for a lad my age the post war era was hard on the Germans, Jerry’s we used to call them everything was in short supply, we used to joke you could get a girl for a bar of soap. I had never been on holiday before so it was like a vacation for me, I used to buy up the ration of cigarettes from the non-smokers and take them to Paddabourn to sell to the local barbershop for a vast profit.
The first task I was given on being allocated to C Squadron was to repair the Squadron Leaders Tank, this was a Cromwell that he used to like because it was lighter and faster that the Centurions, the engine would not run, so suspecting ignition timing I removed the Magneto distributor cap only to find the magneto drive shaft was sheared off, this was a serious problem, the spill shaft was located inside the timing cover of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that we were not authorised to dismantle.
To cut a long story short, I had to steal a spill shaft from the sectioned display engine that was in the driver’s instruction school, strip the engine illegally, fit the replacement shaft and retime the Magnetos, but it worked like a charm and I was the local hero.
As a warning against playing practical jokes one of our jokes backfired in a disastrous way, Sunday lunch was a special meal, best of the week for us, one Sunday in the barrack room we were just going to lunch when one of the squad became attached to his bed by a kitbag lock used like a handcuff, we all laughed and went on our way to the mess hall, on our return an hour later we saw to our horror that the man had gone completely crazy, detached the head end of his iron bedstead and thrown it out of the third floor window, he was hanging in the window with his arm outstretched but still attached to the bed.
The only good thing was it exposed his weak mental state, not the sort of man you want to go into battle with, and the man probably got a medical discharge
We went on several schemes to test our battle readiness and gun firing exercises to make sure they actually worked. Some of these were during the winter of 50/51 and it was bitterly cold, so cold that you could not touch the bare metal of the tanks because your hand froze instantly to the metal. But it was all good fun except I was nearly killed when the Sergeant who was driving my Half-track in convoy at night went to sleep and drove it into the ditch at the side of the road, he wreaked the canvas top of the vehicle where I would have been sleeping had I not been in the co-drivers seat, a lucky escape, as it was only the radio and my service revolver were damaged.
I did get into trouble on one occasion, I was told to deliver a lorry to the repair works in North Germany and as it was going for overhaul I did not bother to adjust the slow running properly I just put a pair of pliers over the hand throttle knob in the cab to stop the engine stalling, this worked fine until the corporal who went with me as navigator said turn left at the next junction. The next junction turned out to be a small side road that was not really big enough for the vehicle, thinking this is not right I pulled into the side of the road to check the map. Unfortunately I was distracted by the engine revving madly because of the pliers having slipped down over the knob and managed to get too close to a house roof which overhung the road, the hoop irons of the canvas covered lorry lifted the eaves of the house one after the other shaking quite a few of the roof tiles down into the garden, the irate owner could not be pacified with the tins of Nescafe I always carried as contraband black market goods.
I was put on a charge, not for having an accident, but for not giving the proper report form, which was packed, into a crate in the back of the lorry and not readily available to me, I was sentenced to seven days jankers for an administrative error.
This was at the time of the Korean war and it was announced that the regiment was going off to fight in Korea, we were going to be amalgamated with the Eighth Tank Regiment to form an active service regiment, fortunately for me they had plenty of regular soldiers in the two regiments so they did not have to call on the National Service soldiers.
The rest of my time was spent waiting for the time to pass until September first 1951 when my two years service was completed. The time finally arrived and I was off back to blighty much relieved. I often wonder what happened to the regular soldiers that I served with in Germany when they went to Korea.
I read with interest of the progress of the Korean war and the tales of heroism, but I do not think it was good tank country.