Dad showed me how to load a rifle and they’d improvised a small range so I was able to fire a round. It occurs to me writing this that later there wasn’t enough ammunition for target practice so that men in my unit would probably have fired a rifle for the first time when they encountered the German army. If they’d come we’d have been a pushover. What saved us was the 22 miles of water in the English Channel. We were not the only ones to be taken by surprise by the speed of the German advance. They made frantic preparations. Because they didn’t have enough landing barges they tried to adapt river barges but these capsized in rough seas and many troops were drowned. Of course we didn’t know that at the time but Churchill and a few others probably knew from the top secret codebreaking that was going on.
There was one potentially nasty moment during that visit. I came into Dad’s office. He picked up the rifle, pointed it at me and was about to pull the trigger but didn’t. That was fortunate because it had a round in it and in all probability he would have killed me. That would have been terrible for him emotionally and he would certainly have been courtmartialled and at the very least cashiered. So I learned early the golden rule, never point a gun at anyone even if you know for a fact that it’s not loaded.
Back to 1941. Around the summer of that year I was sent back to my unit. I think they felt that staying with them was not helping my chances of promotion. They must have put in a good word for me because I went back to Battalion Headquarters and found that I was on an NCO’s (Non Commisssioned Officer’s) cadre course for men who might be promoted to Lance Corporal someday. During that course I had to stand in front of the squad and give a lesson. It was a great ordeal. “Nah, wot we’re goin’ on wiv this morning’s The Rifle. Lesson One: Naming the parts. This here’s the butt and this here’s the muzzle…” and so on.
I arrived too late to draw a palliasse (cotton mattress cover) and straw. You filled it with straw and slept on that. I had to sleep on the wooden floor of the village hall the first night and it was very cold. From there I went back to my company in a village called Haxey in North Lincolnshire. I don’t remember how long we were there before we moved to a former civilian aerodrome near Grimsby. It was being converted for the RAF. In addition to the usual drills, parades, route marches, guard duties etc we spent days as labourers. We put 15 miles of triple dannert and double apron barbed wire round the airfield. Triple dannert referred to long coils of barbed wire. You put two coils side by side and a further coil on top. On each side of the coils you put a crisscrossing apron of barbed wire. This was quite hard work. We also did a lot of digging for concrete pillboxes. On one occasion we spent a couple of weeks digging a large and deep rectangular hole. Then the Colonel arrived with his acolytes and studied it. “Field of fire theah! Dead ground theah! I think we’ll have it over heah!” “Righto, lads, pick it up. Move it!”
It was a well-known fact (to the other ranks not to the officers) that the Sergeant Cooks were stealing the rations and selling them on the black market in the village. We were growing teenagers leading a very active life and we were often hungry. Our billets were huts at the opposite side of the airfield. We had to go the long way round by the perimeter road because the grass was seeded and it was forbidden to walk on it. I think we had a truck to ride in first thing in the morning and after work. I was so hungry that I used to buy bread from the village shop near our huts and eat it without butter or anything. A good moment was when one of the lads stole a chicken one night. I was on picquet duty, which meant peeling a huge pile of potatoes. We stuffed potatoes, onions etc inside our blouses and took them back to our hut where the chicken was boiling in a metal washbowl from the ablutions. When it was cooked we had a bit each. It tasted wonderful.
There was custom, possibly going back many years, that the smartest man on the guard and picquet parade got excused duty. He was called the stick man and he reported to the company office in case he was needed as an orderly. Later he was allowed to go off duty. This was a cushy number and an incentive to polish your boots, brasses etc and clean your webbing with filthy khaki coloured stuff called Blanco although most of us never got near being picked out for that honour. However, to my surprise, one night the stick man was me. I think the officer wanted to share it around.
Late at night I was walking back round the perimeter road carrying my rifle, greatcoat, bits of equipment which I’d removed as stick man. A fair way behind me I saw dim lights approaching. Because of the blackout vehicles had small sidelights only. The RAF was moving in and I decided that it must be their bus. I thought that if they were decent chaps they’d give me a lift but I wasn’t going to beg for one. I kept to the righthand side of the road. When the vehicle got close I turned my head and found a light on each side of me and that’s the last I remember. I think I must have dived to my right because I had a small injury on the back of my left knee and I think that was probably where I was hit by the bumper bar. It was actually one of our own utes (like a small, canvas covered panel van). The driver didn’t see me but the boys in the back of the van saw me lying on the road. Apparently I was lying on my back with the greatcoat over my face. When they moved it my eyes were wide open and staring. They thought they’d killed me although I was actually only unconscious. I was bundled into the back of the van and I started to come round as the driver was explaining to an officer that he needed a permit to take me to the hospital. I didn’t feel like being awake so I kept my eyes shut and lay still. It was strange because I wasn’t the least bit worried about how bad I might be. I could also clearly feel blood trickling down my face although I found out later that I had a very big lump on my right forehead but no open wound.
I officially came round just before we reached the hospital and I was able to limp in. The doctor examined me and sent me away. Now, of course, anybody with concussion would be kept in overnight as a precaution. When I went to bed I felt terrible and had a bad night. Next morning I couldn’t get up soon enough to catch the truck but I walked round to fall in at the back of the parade with those going sick. The Company Sergeant Major was very concerned and came rushing over to see if I was all right. I’ve always said that I was a nervous pedestrian because I’d been knocked down twice. This was the second time and I was jumpy for quite a long time afterward. On each occasion I was doing nothing the least bit dangerous and was plain unlucky. The driver told me he was trying to find the righthand edge of the track with his wheels because it was difficult to see where the road was going in the dark with only very small sidelights. The rule for pedestrians is keep to the righthand side of the road, facing approaching traffic. Only I was hit from behind through doing the right thing. next