Something else we had that first year and I’m glad to have had the experience was that we had a bugler and he played the various calls. Each call started with the company note. We were G Company. I think this was so that recruits could tell which was their bugle call if the entire battalion was in camp. I also think that’s why the company numbers were A-B-C-D-G because I think there are only five notes on a bugle and that’s what they are. The calls had words. Whether these were thought up by the soldiers or were a deliberate mnemonic to help illiterate and unmusical recruits I don’t know. I particularly liked the call for Sick Parade. “Sixty-four, ninety-four, he’ll never go sick no more the poor bugger’s dead.”
A family in the village were very good to another soldier and myself. We went there, perhaps once or twice a week, and they fed us etc. The summer of 1940 was hot and I got quite sunburned. When you took off your forage cap your face was red apart from a big white patch on your righthand forehead where your cap had been. One thing I forgot to mention just above is that as a local regiment we were allowed to march through the city with bayonets fixed. This was a considerable honour but the bayonets were long and added to the weight when they were held at the slope so we didn’t think much of it.
One night in September 1940 the coded message came through that the invasion had started or was imminent. We were got out of bed and had to get dressed, put our equipment on and stand by. Happily it was a false alarm and after a few hours we were able to go back to bed.
I mentioned earlier how Churchill’s defiance was a big bluff. Many parks had dummy anti aircraft guns in them to make German reconnaisance planes report that the country was better defended than it actually was. One tank unit toured the nation constantly so it would be photographed in different locations and it would seem that we actually had quite a lot of armour instead of practically none.
Late in 1940, or perhaps it was early in 1941, I was posted to the Headquarters of the Home Guard North Midland Area. This was the professional army office that controlled and supported the amateurs of the Home Guard. The staff consisted of a Colonel in charge. He was quite a civilised man, probably a World War I man recalled from civilian life where he was an architect in Winchester. There were two younger officers. I don’t remember much about them. And some clerical staff. I was to act as a telephone orderly. The switchboard was small box-like unit. It had two outside lines. Black flaps about the size of a postage stamp fell when a call was coming in and they made a buzzing noise. There were also six small circular windows for the extensions. When one of these phones was picked up a thing rather like an eyeball with the number of the extension on it fell. The phone had to be manned night and day. I don’t remember how often I had to stay there overnight, perhaps alternate nights or every third night.
In addition the person on night duty had to light six coal fires the next morning. This involved cleaning out the ash from the previous day’s fire, laying a new fire and getting it going. You crumpled a bed of old newspaper. On that you put a layer of firewood and on top of that some small pieces of coal. The paper burned long enough to set fire to the wood which burned a bit longer and set fire to the coal. If it went out you had to start again. At first I found this difficult but the trick was to keep going round once the coal had caught. Every time you saw some flame you put a bit of coal on it until there was sufficient mass of burning coal to constitute a viable fire.
Going back some years, it was Uncle Art who taught us how to make “firewood sticks” out of old newspapers. You spread a broadsheet of newspaper on the floor. Took a thin pea stick like the sort used to support flowers, started at one corner and rolled the paper tightly around the stick. You ended with a long, thin coil of rolled up newspaper.
You bent this in half and kept crossing it until you ended up with something that burned slowly. That saved money on firewood (and probably spared some trees although we didn’t think of such things at that time.)
Whilst further in the past perhaps I should talk about Fireworks Night. This was on the 5th of November each year (Remember, remember the fifth of November gunpowder treason and plot.) It was customary for many people to make an effigy of Guy Fawkes (said to be the only man who ever went to Parliament with good intentions. He was going to blow it up when the king was inside.) and burn it. You bought fireworks from newsagents and although I never did it myself it was customary for kids to wear ragged clothes, put soot on their faces and ask passers by for pennies. I loved the story of an American visitor to London soon after the war ended (in 1945). He wrote home that things were very bad in England. On every corner there were groups of ragged children with dirty faces begging for money for some poor guy (probably their father.)
In the years when we could afford them we bought fireworks and Dad let them off in the backyard. There were bangers which exploded with a loud noise, colourful ones, frequently cone shaped. You put these on top of a wall or stepladder, lit them and they produced a shower of golden sparks. Very pretty. Catherine wheels were circular. You pinned them to a tree or door or something and they spun round making circles of brightly coloured sparks. Jumping jacks had a number of small explosives bound together. As each bit fired the firework jumped a short distance in an unpredictable manner so you had to keep out of the way. Rockets were long and thin and had a short stick attached. You placed the stick in an empty bottle and it went up into the air where it exploded in a shower of sparks etc. (There was a saying that something went up like a rocket and come down like the stick.) Every year numerous people ended up in hospital with missing fingers, hands or eyes so eventually fireworks for individual use were banned. The instructions on the fireworks said light the blue touch paper and retire immediately. Sometimes the fuse burned for a while but then went out. That’s when accidents happened because people applied a flame too close to the explosive and got hurt. next