One or two smallish things to report before moving on from Waltham Airport. Getting in to the hospital that looked at me and sent me home was much desired. It had good food and nice nurses. One lad took the cordite out of a round of ammunition and swallowed it. That made him froth at the mouth and have violent abdominal pains. So they sent him to the hospital where they took his appendix out!
At one time I was required to do telephone duty in the entrance lobby of the officers mess. After a day of the usual parades, route marches, manual labour etc I fell in with the guard and picquet parade and then went off to man the phone. Whether that was every night or every other night I don’t remember. I’m fairly sure I stayed there all night, probably sleeping there. Again I’m not sure about this but I know I had to give some officers wake up calls. I learned a trick there. After I’d told them the time I said, “Excuse me, Sir, would you tell me what day it is please?” That meant that he had to wake up sufficiently to answer my question and made sure that he couldn’t accuse me later of not having called him. I was also there for breakfast time and saw what the officers had to eat. Much, much better than what we got. The War Office had said that Young Soldier Battalions were entitled to an extra bread ration. We never got it. Whether our unit didn’t ask for it or we got it and the cooks stole it and flogged it down the village I don’t know. But the officers had toast with the crusts cut off. It’s injustices like that that led to the French Revolution.
The only slightly exciting thing that happened was that one night a Wellington bomber coming back from a raid ran out of fuel and crashlanded on one of our runways. Because this civilian airport was not yet operational tripods of several 4-5 metre long poles were spaced out along them. The plane came in with its engines not running and made a belly landing without its undercarriage down. The chaps on guard duty thought it was a big, black German glider. They grabbed their rifles and took up positions around it. Fortunately they realised that it was one of ours before opening fire. I made very few calls but that night I was able to get his airfield on the phone for the pilot so that he could report that the plane was wrecked but the crew was safe.
Another good lurk that I had there was to be second reserve for the company cross country team. This got me off parades etc in order to go on training runs and because we were all very fit there was absolutely no danger that the first reserve would ever actually have to race let alone the second reserve.
From Waltham we moved near to a small Lincolnshire town called Woodhall Spa. Our huts were in a wood, it was autumn but we were required to sweep up fallen leaves! It was there that I was one of those chosen to go on a signals course at Lincoln Barracks.
That meant learning the morse code which took a few days but wasn’t too difficult. We trained chiefly with buzzers but we also had to practise sending morse by flag and by signal lamp. I can recall the very painful experience of reading a signal from a lamp across a field of snow. The course was probably four to six weeks. Lincoln is on a very steep hill with the barracks at the top. Going down the hill with my steel studded and steel tipped army boots when it was icy was tricky.
By the time we rejoined our battalion it had moved to the Lincolnshire market town of Brigg. After a time I was chosen to go on one of the army’s most prestigious courses, the Regimental Signal Instructors course at Catterick in Yorkshire. This was unusual in that both officers and NCOs took part. No mere privates so I was promoted to Lance Corporal. One thing that happened at Brigg was that they called for volunteers for airborne units. We all put our names down. Of course they didn’t want to lose their specialists so they found excuses to knock us all back. One of my mates was the only one who went off for an interview and a medical. He had no, or almost no, sight in one eye so we felt pretty sure he’d be rejected. But he’d been a junior chess champion. He read the chart first with his good eye and memorised it and then faked it with his bad eye. He was killed at Sicily.
It was at Catterick that I made one of the two best jokes I ever made and they were both accidental. In the army you were supposed to sleep on your trousers to more or less keep creases in them. A sergeant was inspecting us. He looked at my trousers and asked if I’d slept on them. I assured him that I always did. He then drew attention to his own trousers which had knife edge creases. Of course he was in married quarters and I was pretty sure they’d been put in with an iron but I couldn’t say so. Instead I said, “Maybe I’m not as heavy a sleeper as you, Sergeant.” “Cheeky bugger.” And he walked on. I had meant only that perhaps I didn’t weigh as much as he did. The second accidental joke was a lot of years later back in civvy street. I was staying at a small hotel in London. I’d been to the theatre and had really enjoyed myself.
Walking back to my hotel I met three prostitutes coming the other way. When we got close one of them called out “Want a good time?” “I’ve just had a good time, thank you.” They were highly amused but, of course, I hadn’t meant what they thought I’d meant.
I don’t remember a great deal about the course. It covered most of the stuff that I already knew with an emphasis on instructing. In addition we had to learn some fairly elementary stuff on electro magnetism – the circuit of the trembler bell, for example – and the thing that I found most difficult how to make joints in cable. Anyway I survived it. Some weeks after I got back to Brigg the results came through and I was marched in to see the Commanding Officer. He asked me to confirm that I had actually been on the course named – as I said before highly regarded as one of the army’s top courses – “Well you got a D” he said rather disbelievingly. The passes for army courses were, in descending order, D (probably for Distinguished) Q1 and Q2. He commented that officers went on that course and only got a Q1.
A short time later I was promoted to a full Corporal and given a squad to train. These were drawn from each of the companies. Some companies did the right thing and sent men who were reasonably intelligent and others took the opportunity to get rid of men who were useless and not fit for anything. To begin with we assembled in a hut just out of town. On the first night I came back from town and arrived at lights out. I decided to set an example and undress and get into bed in the dark. I called “Lights going out.” And reached for the switch. It had a broken cover and I stuck my thumb across the bare electrodes. I was wearing steel studded boots and standing on a concrete floor so I sailed through the air and landed in a heap. Luckily I wasn’t killed but I shook all night. “Serves me right” I thought. next