The unit I was sent to join was in a school in a different part of the city. We were given bus fares but walked and spent the money on a cup of tea en route. After being kitted out it was lunchtime and time for a meal. We had metal plates, a metal bowl and cutlery. My first impression of the dining room was of an awful din. The lads were drumming on their plates whilst waiting for the food. At that time you sat 6-8 at a table and the food arrived at the head of it. You had to eat quickly and keep an eye on your plate otherwise your food would be nicked. A few days later we moved to a former minor stately home a few miles out. This was dilapidated and it was probably knocked down years ago.
The other youngsters were a tough lot. Many of them had been in Borstal or approved schools. They played a gambling card game called Brag on payday, lost all their money and stole your cap badge and then offered to sell it back to you for a penny or two. But you soon learned. If my cap badge went missing I looked around to see who had one who hadn’t had one the previous day and decided that he was probably the one who had stolen mine. I picked my moment and then pinched his. I also learned not to leave my cap lying around. I guess in prisons you learn equally quickly.
We were really quite well armed. We had a rifle each – I don’t know what museum they got them from – and we had 10 rounds of ammunition each. What would have happened if we’d met a crack German unit I don’t know. Our ammunition would have gone quickly and I hope we would then have been stupid enough to say “Fix bayonets. Charge!” Fortunately I was never put to the test. We also had an antique machine gun. It fired 30 rounds a minute and we had 100 rounds of ammunition for it. Our NCOs were regular army men who would never have been promoted but for the war. The one who was supposed to teach us about the machine gun gathered us in a small group around him and then shouted at the top of his voice, sweat forming on his balding forehead. He used long words like prolongation of the elongation and technical terms – tang, groove, lug, sere. I still don’t know what any of that meant.
These old hands were a colourful lot. I wish I’d kept a diary to record their speech. Somebody asked a Corporal what a particular ribbon meant. He said it was for cleaning the Colonel’s boots on horseback. The Company Sergeant Major was a feisty little man.
He would brandish each of his fists in turn and say “’Orspital! Death!” One day we were with the Corporal in the middle of the paddock and he saw the CSM approaching. He said “Okey,dokey, fellows, here he comes Spearmint-fucking- Harry.” That was how he got his nickname – Okey Dokey. A highlight of those early days was when a young Corporal was demonstrating unarmed combat. He’d pick on some poor bloke and thrown him to the ground. There was a large, dopey- looking man who stood at the back and didn’t say much. He asked “Can I try that Corp?” He came out, grabbed the Corporal, lifted him into the air and threw him down so hard that he broke his arm. “Oh, sorry, Corp. Did I ‘urt yer?” To our great amusement we found out in the next few days that in civilian life he’d been a professional wrestler.
It turned out that our unit was supposed to be a mobile column that would move quickly to any trouble spot. We had a couple of old buses that had had their windows removed. We used to practise getting on and off quickly. The trick was that you went as far towards the rear of the bus as you could and when disembarking those at the front got off first. A young officer used to stand with a stopwatch timing us. “Embus!” “Debus”. “That was 20 seconds now see if you can do it faster.” I’m sure the Germans would have been happy to wait a few seconds longer but it showed willing. next