At this point I feel a need to backtrack and digress. The Home Guard HQ had a heavy army bicycle. In order to brake you pushed backwards on the pedals. I couldn’t ride a bike but I taught myself on that machine and used to ride a fair way to the Sorting Office each day to collect the mail. I mentioned earlier that swimming “lessons” for those of us who couldn’t swim meant that we shivered and hung on to the bar at the shallow end whilst the teachers coached the good swimmers at the deep end. But we did practise the arm and leg movements while lying across a piece of equipment in the gym. That was breast stroke of course. Only the really good swimmers went on to advanced strokes like the Australian Crawl.
At Brigg there was a canal, not very deep, only about chest high. Splashing in there one fine day I lifted my feet off the bottom, more or less made the right movements and found that I could “swim” a short distance. A bit more than 20 years later Lorna and I on our honeymoon went into a municipal baths at Blackpool. As she whizzed up and down the pool I tried to see if I could swim a whole width. With a great struggle I eventually made it to the other side although I was exhausted and distressed. Nevertheless that was probably the longest distance I ever swam. Since coming to Australia I’ve been in the water very infrequently and that was even more difficult for me because it was in the sea where I also had to battle 10 cm waves.
The British army had (probably still has) many weird and wonderful traditions. My own first mob, The Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment, The Sherwood Foresters, had two regimental marches instead of the usual one. This came about because quite a lot of years in the past it was formed from the amalgamation of two regiments of foot (the 45th and the 95th or something like that.) Soldiers fitted words to the start of those marches. “When the Sherwood Foresters marched away/What did the girls of Lincoln say/Yo-ho you buggers we’ll make you pay/For leaving us in the family way.” And “The Notts and Jocks are a lousy lot/They lost the Colours at Aldershot/They found them again on Salisbury Plain/But now they’ve lost the buggers again.”
Dad’s unit early in World War 2 was The South Staffordshire Regiment. Their badge was the Staffordshire knot with its two loops. The story is that three men were sentenced to be hanged. But they only had one length of rope. The king said that he would pardon the life of any man who could devise a way of hanging the other two at the same time with one piece of rope. Hence the Staffordshire knot. The officers had a piece of cloth behind the loops.
That commemorated a time in the Regiment’s history when they were sent to some farflung colonial outpost and forgotten about for 20-30 years during which time they got no pay, no supplies, no mail, no leave and were not relieved. I can imagine a scene in the War Office. “I say, Carruthers, what happened to the something Regiment of Foot?” “They’re up on the Frontier aren’t they?” “No. I was in Northwest India myself 15 years ago and all the infantry units in the region sent teams to the annual polo competition. They definitely weren’t among them.” “That’s a bit worrying. We’d better give the matter top priority.”
A few months later they began the search and eventually they discovered a record in the archives of them being sent to a particular place but nothing about them after that. “They must still be there. I wonder if the Navy has a ship going in that direction?” A memo marked “Most Urgent” sat in somebody’s pending basket at the Admiralty for some more months until they checked shipping movements and in due course the Regiment was found. By that time many men had died. The survivors were in rags (and that’s the reason for the bit of cloth on the officers’ badge) but still carrying out all the functions of a garrison in order to show the natives that the British army did its duty no matter the circumstances.
I was at 48 Div Signal Office quite a long time until female staff moved in and we went to a holding unit not far away pending posting. During that time I was sent to a War Office Selection Board for consideration for a commission. That testing lasted a few days and you ate in mess with the officer in charge. The British army had a strong bias in favour of public (in Australia private) schoolboys. I think they wanted to see if you knew which knife and fork to use. It was one of the ways they screened applicants to keep out any working class riff raff. At that time the army hadn’t had many casualties so the need for officers was not high. That’s not an excuse for my failure but it might have been easier to scrape through at some other time.
A few weeks later a rosy-cheeked pip squeak of a public schoolboy Captain who looked as if he should be wearing shorts told me that I hadn’t passed. There was a certain irony in this particular person telling me that they felt I wasn’t sufficiently mature and that I should be resubmitted at some future time. Of course I never was and they thought I was older than I really was but that was that. Shortly after that we were sent on embarkation leave before going overseas. We didn’t know where but hoped it wouldn’t be the Far East although it wasn’t encouraging when we were issued with tropical shirts and shorts and solar topees. next