British Element Trieste Force 1945 - 1954
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I’ve been reading with amusement Harry’s accounts of his joining the Army so I thought I would add to the hilarity by recounting my experiences on joining the Army. I volunteered first of all to join the Air Force and went up to their offices in Bristol Street in Birmingham. I was already a member of the Home Guard (Regtl No: 40752) and was experienced in Wireless Communication and could read the Morse Code at 20 words per minute and send at about 28 per minute. I was informed that for the trade I wanted to enter – Wireless Operator/AirGunner – that I was too short. They stuck an RAFVR badge in my jacket lapel and gave me a letter to take to the local Police Station in the town where I lived and they would give me some excercises and body building work to try and get up to the required height and weight. Three months of this and I still had not made the height so decided I would volunteer for the Army instead. This was in 1943. I went to the Recruiting Offices in Newport, South Wales and volunteered. I was there talked into volunteering for 7 and 5 (seven years in the active army and then 5 years in the reserve). Well, that was better than staying down in South Wales and becoming a CoalMiner. I also thought I had volunteered for the Highland Light Infantry which had been my Father’s regiment during the first world war. A few weeks later I got my call up papers and a train warrant and orders to report to Maryhill Barracks in Glasgow. So I imagined that my dream had come true and I really would be enrolled in the HLI. Alas and alack. At that time the Army had what was known as the General Service Corps and everyone who joined the Army was put in that for the first six weeks of training and then you were placed where they wanted you. Bakers into the Engineers, Bricklayers into the Catering Corps, Cooks into the RA, etc. So we were being trained to become fighters and got ready for warfare. Why we had to form fours and form threes, dress from the centre, port arms, etc, I could never understand, then form up and march to the Pay Table on a Friday and salute for the pittance – I recall it was 21 shillings per week – but you only got seven shillings because you had to make an allowance to your widowed mother, seven shillings a week into savings so you had some money in your pocket when you went on leave, plus there were stoppages for barrack damages, so you were nearly skint before a week had gone by. But at least there was a NAAFI Club where one could buy cheap cigarettes and get a bottle of beer. After a couple of weeks square bashing we were considered trained enough to be allowed out of barracks and catch a tram down to the centre of town. The Regular Staff who were supposed to train us were only allowed out of barracks if they were wearing kilts and they had to report to the Guard Room at the main gates for Short Arms Inspection. This consisted of the Orderly Sergeant, with a short stick in his hand, lifting the front of their kilts to ensure that they were not wearing anything under the kilt. They were also forbidden to use the top deck of the trams or buses. What a wonderful war we were having. But they did take us out on a route march once. Ten miles they said, and we were only used to marching around the barrack square. At least one good thing about the route march was that the Regimental Pipe band came out to join us on our return when we got to Milngavie (pronounced Mulguy). And that was the time I learnt how to appreciate the sound of the pipes. We were almost on our knees at the end of the march but the sound of those bagpipes playing all the Scots tunes, straightened our backs and put fresh steam into our boots and we marched like soldiers back into barracks. Apart from the General Service Corps I mentioned previously, the Army in their wisdom had also brought in the “County Connection” for blokes who were going to infantry regiments and after six weeks in Glasgow, I found myself on a train, once again heading back down to Monmouthshire and South Wales and, of course, to Brecon Barracks and the South Wales Infantry Training battalion. And silly old me had thought I would be joining the HLI! All because I had been living in Monmouthshire when I volunteered. So now I was in the South Wales Borderers and having to make the best of it. I still thought we would be training for warfare. You have, I expect, seen the way the Guards parade for the Queen’s birthday on the Horse Guards parade. After one month in Brecon Barracks we could have outperformed the Guards any day. Form Fours, form three ranks, from the centre reform fours, drill until you dropped. It would have frightened any German soldier out of his skin to see the wonderful way we could imitate the Guards at the Birthday parade.
End of instalment 1.
Sundays were particularly happy days, when the battalion had to form up on the square and march into the church hall for the usual Sunday service, followed by a regimental parade and forming of four and forming of threes, and by the centre right wheel. So this was how to train to fight the German Army!
But, every so often, they made us practice the ‘leopard crawl’ on the barrack square. That did come in useful later on in the Ardennes. Didn’t do much good for the toe-caps on our boots which we had spent days spit-polishing until you could see you face in the toe-caps. Then one day they put a notice on the Notice Board calling for volunteers for special duties. I know I had always been told – never volunteer for anything – but I was so fed up parading and forming fours, threes, etc, that I would have volunteered for anything. So off I went to the office. Very glad I did so because I was told that I would be sent for training as a Despatch Rider. And off I went up to Yorkshire and Richmond and Zetland Hall which was where they introduced us to the old BSA 500 motor-bycicle. We had to learn to ride this monster and used all the minor roads around that part of Yorkshire to practice on. There were about six or seven of us on the course amongst which was a young Jew boy. He was a great comic. You should have heard him recite off by heart Little Bo Peep. He was generally the last in a line of DRs when we rode out of Zetland Hall on practice and one day out riding we came across a small stream with a notice on which was an arrow and a notice saying “FORD”, cross here. Yes, you’ve guessed it. The poor old last rider in the column apparently never saw the notice and did not follow instructions and finished up in the middle of the stream. We spent hours taking the bikes to pieces and putting them back together and then one day we were issued with blindfolds and told to do the same in the dark. As the instructor said, one day you might be out riding at night and develop a fault so you need to be able to put things together in the dark. I never did in all my time as a DonR have this problem, thank heavens. About six weeks or so later we were all told we had passed and were issued with a driving licence and sent back to our battalions. So back to Brecon Barracks I went only to be told a couple of days later that I had been posted to a South Wales Border Regiment which was then training up in Ulverston up by the lakes in Lancashire. So off I went again on my travels up to the Lake District. Talk about training for warfare. I had now been to Glasgow, Brecon, Zetland Hall by Richmond in Yorkshire, back to Brecon and now had to go to Ulverston. If nothing else this kid who had been born in Bromyard in Herefordshire and then because his widowed mother met a bloke from South Wales and decided to move in with him to where he lived in Pengam in Monmouthshire, eventually over the hill to Blackwood, was fast becoming an expert on the geographical layout of Britain.
So now I was in Ulverston where we had to climb mountains and ford streams – on foot this time – and learn to fire machine guns and throw , oops, sorry, ‘lob’ hand grenades. Also strange was the fact that we had one bloke in our section ‘lobbing’ hand grenades who was left-handed and simply could not ‘lob’ a grenade like the rest of us and the first time he tried to use his right hand, he did not ‘lob’ the grenade out of the trench, (and these were 7 minute fused grenades) but hit the top of the trench and it fell back in. The sergeant instructor shouted “duck”, picked up the grenade and tossed it over the wall of the trench. Hand grenades exploding a couple of feet away from you, even over a brick walled trench. make a helluva ‘bang’. But why ‘lob’. Why not just throw the bleeding thing.
Anyway, after about a month, where the evenings were spent in the arms of a beautiful young Ulverston girl at the local dance hall, I got called into the Adjutant’s office and was told that I was being posted down to join the Training Battalion of the Welsh Guards at Sanderstead in Surrey to learn to drive an armoured car ready to join a Mechanised Armoured Reconnaisance Brigade which they were forming. So off on my travels again down, this time to London and onwards to the Sanderstead Race track in Surrey. The main force of the Training Battalion occupied the grandstands and outbuildings of the race track, whilst we, the squaddies sent for training were billeted in private houses down the road from the race track. Each of these were large residential houses which had been requisitioned by the Army and each one had three or four bedrooms plus good lounges and bathrooms, etc. Very cushy. Just one small problem. We were in what was called then “Doodle-bug alley” and those pestilential doodle-bugs were flying around day and night whilst I was there. But more of that in chapter 3.
Doodle-bugs flew over almost every hour at all times of the day and night. These houses were situated alongside a large avenue road, then there was a large field containing cows which bordered the main Southern Railway electric train route. One night a doodle-bug landed almost on top of the rail track and next morning when we formed up for parade, there were quite a few of these cows lying on their backs with their legs pointing to the sky. We were going to have to learn to drive the Daimler Dingo Armoured car, which was just a very small vehicle with an automatic gear-box with five forward and five reverse gears controlled by a small lever on the dashboard. But first one had to learn to drive and this was done in a Bedford 15cwt van. One man in the front with the instructor and four of us in the back.
Driving around Imber court area and the Richmond area. Always keeping an eye out for the odd doodle-bug which one day we encountered just outside Richmond. Fortunately for us but unfortunately for the inhabitants of a street up to our left, it made a mess of about four houses and blew us across the road. Happy days. Unfortunately, much worse was to come. Just before I went down to Sanderstead a doodle-bug had fallen on the Welsh Guards Chapel in Whitehall and 196 squaddies and officers were killed. In August, the Training Bn decided to hold a Sports day down in Imber Court Sports field. Practically everyone from the Battalion went down in trucks and the sports unfolded. Also there was the Regimental band at the top end of the Sports field. There was a large wooden pavilion in which I found a seat in order to watch. Halfway through the gathering, the usual pestilential doodle-bug made its entrance in the skies and this one suddenly cut it’s engine and was diving down heading straight for the pavilion. Those of us in the pavilion immediately ‘jumped ship’ and headed for the middle of the field. It’s engine then started again and looking up we could now see that it was heading straight for us. A smart about turn and head back to the pavilion where at least we could shelter beneath it but the thing fell straight onto the band and I was hit in the back by the blast and did in fact find myself propelled up to and underneath the pavilion. An absolute massacre. 86 members of the unit were killed that afternoon and I never did know the number of wounded. But thank heaven I was still all in one piece. I saw things that afternoon that even today I can still remember and shudder. Those of us who could still walk were told to make our way back to our billets. And we were given the following day off to recover.
These houses I have mentioned as our billets had a long drive from the road and up the sides of the drive had been constructed inspection pits so we could get underneath the trucks and vehicles we had to learn how to maintain as well as drive. They were, of course, containing of water and oil if and when the rain fell. One morning I was called into the Adjutant’s office and told to report to the Transport Office and pick up a PSU and drive to Paddington in London and pick up a couple of officers and bring them back to the unit. By this time, of course, I was considered able to drive quite a few different types of vehicles but a PSU? An Austin with the normal four forward gears and one reverse. I had never driven one of those before but nothing tried nothing gained, so off I went, signed for the PSU and then had to find my way to Paddington. I had a road map but after all the bombing that had taken place in the city with roads blocked by rubble from fallen houses, boy, did I have problems in finding the rail station in Paddington. Find it I did only to get a severe bollocking from the two officers I had to pick up for being half an hour late. But we made it back to Sanderstead. One afternoon, training over for the day, I was upstairs in my billet having a bath when there came a shout “Doodle-bug” on its way, so I grabbed a towel and rushed downstairs onto the drive and dived into one of the inspection pits. There was a loud explosion from the race-track and the windows all shattered in the house. I was by now covered in dirt and oil from the inspection pit so decided to go back up and finish my bath. Except that the bathroom was no longer there and the bath was hanging by the water pipes down the side wall.
Training over, and now a qualified driver of a Daimler Dingo armoured car and operator of a 22 wireless set which was mounted inside, I was given a piece of paper which counted as a driving licence, given a railway ticket from Paddington to Newport in South Wales and told I could have ten days leave. I was also driven to Paddington in a PSU. What a wonderful war I was having.