Ch4 pt3. Peeling potatoes and Salisbury.

After our jumping course Tony and I had fourteen days’ leave. Then we were posted to the Headquarters Signals Section of the First Airborne Division and stationed just outside the picturesque village of Caythorpe. Caythorpe sits half way between the country town of Grantham, hometown of Margaret Thatcher – the first woman Prime Minister of England – and the lovely cathedral city of Lincoln. Close by was the air force base near to which Lawrence of Arabia had been killed in a motor bike crash in the nineteen thirties. For a few short months we enjoyed living in a lovely corner of England.

Our Officer-in-Charge was Major Anthony a man of considerable personal courage, but intellectually an upper class twit who didn’t know what time of day it was. He made a career of the army, and eventually became a general. Fortunately for the troops under his command a long period of peace ensued and Anthony never had to plan a campaign of action for his troops under conditions such as we experienced during the Second World War.

I recall that when we were going on a firing course to York, I accidently left my greatcoat and mattress roll in the billet when I should have taken them on parade. Instead of allowing me the twenty seconds necessary to retrieve them, the sergeant in charge ordered me into the waiting truck, and we were on our way to York. I was there paraded in front of Anthony who accepted no excuses but sentenced me to seven days CB for disobeying an order. I was therefore confined to quarters for seven days after being out all day on the moors firing live ammunition. It was bitterly cold, and I slept with no blankets, greatcoat or anything. I will never know how I avoided getting pneumonia. What annoyed me more than anything, however, was that I was prevented from making a pilgrimage to the beautiful York Minster. This was a holy of the holies to that wonderful Yorkshireman, my father, and the capital of the universe as far as he was concerned. In actual fact, I had to wait another thirty years – until I made a return trip to England from Australia in 1974, and until I was fifty-two years old – before I ever saw the city, which was of such great importance to my father and his side of the family.

Major Anthony thought it was all very amusing. He had an idea that no soldier was really a soldier until he had been put on a charge and clobbered by his OC. Several weeks later, I went on a few days’ leave with my mate Tony. We overstayed our leave by two days, and when we came back were paraded separately in front of Anthony to explain our absence. Tony, with far more cunning than I, said that he had become engaged to a local girl and had taken the extra two days off because he was besotted with love and could not resist her charms. Anthony awarded him seven days’ CB, saying that he understood the position but couldn’t have his Signallers absenting themselves whenever a beautiful girl beckoned.

When I was paraded before Anthony, he asked me what I had to say for myself, and rather stupidly, instead of concocting a plausible story and thus pulling the wool over his eyes, I told him shortly that I was sick and tired of being mucked about by the army, and when I found myself in such congenial company at Tony’s place at Stoke-on-Trent, I had decided to stay for a while and have a rest from it all.

I had expected a reaction, but not the one I got. Anthony went red, white and purple and seemed as if he was about to take a stroke. Frothing slightly at the mouth, his voice rising to a squeak, he told me that I was a horrible bloody man, irresponsible and unreliable, and ought to be ashamed of myself. His rage was so great that I thought that I had gone too far and would cop a month in the glasshouse. However, he eventually calmed himself, and after a few moments’ silence said in an almost normal voice which shook only slightly that I should be confined to barracks for seven days with my friend Tony T and that we should both peel spuds for the whole of the camp and do other various nasty chores such as cleaning out latrines for that period.

I felt with some satisfaction that this time I had got something back in return for being put on a charge, that I had in some fashion evened the score for my unjust incarceration at York. But Tony was glum and dispirited. As we sat peeling potatoes at night, he would pick up a spud, look at it moodily, then suddenly jam his knife into it savagely, saying as he did so, “You bastard!” I knew that he was talking about Major Anthony.

“I’ll get even with the bastard,” said Tony.

“But how will you do it?” 

“I’ll work something out. You’ll see.” 

About a month later Tony came to me one day all smiles. “I’ve caught the bastard.” 

“Who? Anthony?” 

“Yes.” 

“How?” 

“He’s given me four days’ compassionate leave.” 

“How did you wangle it, Tony?” 

“I told him I wanted to get married. I got one of my girl friends to write me a letter. So he’s given me four days compassionate leave ….. or should I say ‘passionate’ leave?” asked Tony, with a wicked, dissipated leer. 

“But you’re not going to get married, are you?” 

Tony put a finger to his lips ……”Ssshhh.” After four days he returned to camp full of beans and as chirpy as a cricket.                 

“Did you get married, Tony?” 

“Of course not.” 

“Anthony will find out. He’ll expect you to make a pay allotment to your wife. When you don’t do it, he’ll have your guts for garters.” 

Anthony was not long in calling Tony into the sanctum sanctorum to question him about the married state. We watched Tony follow the sergeant major to the company office with fear and foreboding in our hearts. But in a quarter of an hour he was back, chirpier than ever, and smiling broadly. 

“Did you get jankers, Tony?” 

“Jankers? Of course not. I fooled the bastard. I nailed him.” 

“What happened?” 

“I told him that she jilted me,” said Tony. “I told him that I spent the whole four days trying to get her to change her mind. But she wouldn’t budge, so after my leave was up, I returned to my unit, broken hearted and deeply unhappy, but conscious of my duty to my comrades, my country, and to the Airborne Div and Major Anthony. I’ve outwitted the bastard, boys. There’s nothing he can do.” 

In point of fact, there was nothing that Anthony did do. He must have known that Tony had worked a swifty. But he preferred to say nothing and let the matter rest.                                                                                            

During the next several months we spent our time going on exercises, which we called “schemes”, operating wireless links and attending lectures which we had already heard a dozen times over. We went on route marches, hid from the sergeant major, cleaned out the latrines and swept up the barracks. We did everything possible to avoid that black and frustrated state of mind that is the enemy of all soldiers too long in barracks. The French express the feeling by a phrase untranslatable except to a soldier: “Avoir le cafard.” In English it is known as being browned off. This period was enlivened by four parachute jumps, all of which were carried out from DC 47 aircraft. In these a score of men sat in the plane, the static line of each parachute hooked up to a common rail running from one end to the other. When the red light went on, everybody stood up and faced to the rear. When the light turned to green we all sashayed along to the rear door near the tail as fast as possible and stepped out into the slipstream. The dispatcher at the door would be urging each soldier to tread on the head of the man who disappeared in front of him. Although the kites throttled back to about a hundred miles an hour and creaked and shuddered in the process to the point where they seemed about to disintegrate, it was still necessary to jump out with maximum speed. Otherwise the stick of parachutists when they reached the ground would be so strung out that there was a good chance of losing touch with each other. Additionally the enemy would be given a good opportunity to pick us off one by one. So with this in the forefront of our minds and with the dispatcher screaming and bawling at us all the time to “Go, go, go!!” We never wasted a moment in getting out of the aircraft.

Of these four jumps, I remember particularly the one we made over Salisbury Plain. We took off from an airfield near Caythorpe late one evening, flew around all night, and prepared to jump over the vast empty expanse of Salisbury Plain just after dawn came up and flooded the beautiful English countryside with early sunshine.

Now Salisbury Plain has been used for army manoeuvres since time immemorial. I am sure that even the Romans must have used it to practise tactics and outflanking movements. For, apart from the town of Salisbury tucked away in one section and the monolithic Stonehenge in another, Salisbury Plain is empty. We parachutists always had a fear of coming down in a tree or descending on a multi-storeyed house. So I thought to myself, “You’re right this time, Foxon. Nothing can go wrong on Salisbury Plain”. But I reckoned without the ability, which I seem to have on certain occasions, of doing everything wrong.       

We were not jumping at night – everything was clearly visible. We seemed to be at about a thousand feet – plenty of time for a nice ride down to earth. We all got out of the plane at maximum speed – it was a copybook parachute jump. After the first frightening blast of wind from the slipstream which always seemed to blow one all over the sky, and the ever accelerating free fall which snatched the breath from one’s lungs, my canopy opened with a satisfying snap, and I had a few blissful moments to enjoy the ride down and the lovely view of the deserted Plain beneath.

But wait, what is this? There is a bitumen road crossing the Plain, and at the side of the road are telegraph poles with wires strung between them. And the massive timber tops of the poles are sharpened to a wedge shape with a metal cover to deflect the rain.             

The poles are like huge up-pointed spears. I am falling at the same speed as if I had jumped off a fifteen-foot high wall. I get the idea that I am falling bum-first on to the top of a pointed Indian stockade. I shall be neatly impaled up my anus. Ouch! Oh, my God!

But suppose I miss the poles? Then I shall crash through the telephone wires and I have no idea what kind of voltage they are carrying. Perhaps I shall fry. And again if I miss both the poles and the wires, the way I am falling I shall hit the hard bitumen road and break a bloody leg. Oh, Christ!

Furiously I reach up and start to juggle with the rigging leading to my canopy, trying to spill a bit of air to guide my descent. But I must be careful. If I collapse the thing I shall plummet to earth and break my neck. Also I have very little time to manoeuvre – in fact I have no time at all. For suddenly the telegraph pole, the wires and the bitumen road rush up to strike me in that familiar last minute burst of speed.

            I miss the sharpened top of the telegraph pole by a whisker. I feel a series of prickly electric shocks as I crash through the wires, bringing some down and no doubt cutting off several telephone conversations. Now is the time when I shall crash on to the bitumen and break a leg ……… But no, I am suddenly brought to the gentlest of stops, and find myself loaded as I am with heavy equipment standing on tip-toe on the only bitumen road for miles, like a pantomime fairy. As I crashed through the telephone wires my parachute was caught on the sharp top of the pole, and this and the elasticity of my harness enabled me to make the gentlest and most unexpected landing in my entire brief but spectacular career as a parachutist.

Not every jump finished as happily. I was distantly acquainted with a tall, rather well spoken Signaller who jumped from another plane on this day. I never saw him again, but they told me that he had jumped just a little bit too late when his plane was approaching the outskirts of Salisbury, hit the roof of a house, fell off as his parachute collapsed and broke his back. Apparently he was not killed, but he was seriously injured and out of action for a very long time.

2 thoughts on “Ch4 pt3. Peeling potatoes and Salisbury.”

  1. From Lynda
    Jim and his friends are still naïve. They think the biggest thing they have to fight is their CO. They are still playing at being soldiers. In this story Jim shows how we can see what is happening, yet we don’t understand the enormity of it, until we are there ourselves.

    Like

  2. From Trish
    I laughed out loud at the antics of Tony and Jim. If only someone sensible could have harnessed their energy to more constructive actions than peeling spuds like a pair of St. Trinian’s boys. These two flourish with mental flossing and one-upmanship.
    Jim’s documented description of a first parachute jump, a calamitous landing, and the not-so-successful outcomes for others, also contained a hint of humour, but I think it was for deflection of the fear felt at the time.

    Like

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