I got up early in the morning of 21ST October, 1941, ate a hearty breakfast, then caught a bus to take me on the first part of my journey to join the army. The bus was held up in a traffic block in the cobbled Essex Road. Slowly it crawled on to “The Angel” public house and then accelerated downhill and arrived quite rapidly at King’s Cross railway station.
I boarded my train with a few minutes to spare and found myself a seat as we began to move out of the dim, curving platform. The sun shone through the windows and foretold a fine day. There were several soldiers sprawled about the carriage, but they did not talk much. Mostly they sat and read with quiet, serious expressions on their faces, or they lay back and slept.
I did not feel any regret at leaving home. I now detested London. At one time, as a boy during the peace, I had thought it romantic to trudge through the dimly lit streets of the dock district and watch the big ships arriving from strange lands; or to stand on Tower Bridge and gaze at the magnificent display of light from up river. However, I had now come to perceive clearly that there were two Englands: the haves and have-nots – and my people belonged to the latter. I saw equally clearly that the war had to be won, for Hitler’s philosophy of the superiority of what he was pleased to call the “Aryans” and the inferiority of everybody else was intolerable and would have led to the ruination of all of us. Yet by the same token I was as sure as I had ever been of anything that the successful conclusion of this war would have to be followed by a radical change in English society.
I was thus entering the army as a young and very inexperienced lad who already had an inbuilt suspicion about the competence of the officers in charge of that army to lead it. As for London, I saw it as a huge repository of working class industrial cannon fodder with mansions, sumptuous restaurants, limousines and theatres for the fortunate minority who had mostly inherited their wealth. For people of my class, the city was an ugly, petrol stinking ganglion of streets; a prison that had confined me since childhood and my mother’s people for generations.
But I was escaping from the prison. The sun gleamed brightly through the windows, and the train clattered merrily along the rails. Escaping! Escaping!
The small Yorkshire station became quite crowded as the train ejected a disproportionate number of passengers, all carrying cases like myself. I surrendered my ticket at the gate and walked into the street. I felt that I would have known this was a Yorkshire town if I had been dropped there out of the blue. Half a dozen coal-begrimed miners passed, and the small, box-like houses were built in long parallel rows.
The young men with cases were milling together into something like three ranks under the direction of a lance corporal, and I squeezed myself between them and shuffled into line.
A scrape of feet.
Clumsily the line faced to the right.
“Gawdelpus,” barked the lance jack in charge. “What a sloppy lot. You’re a shower ….. What are you? Pull your stomachs in! You look like a bunch of pregnant ducks.”
This sally was followed by what might have been described as a pregnant pause while stomachs were duly pulled in.
“Quick march! Left, right, left, right.”
The line moved off. A group of young men in khaki grinned sardonically as we passed. They had been in the army five weeks, and considered themselves old sweats. Someone in the front started to sing, and soon the song spread along the whole column. The lance corporal barked encouragement.
“That’s the ticket, lads. Sing up. Swing those arms, now. Straighten your backs. Bags of bull.”
We lengthened our stride and duly straightened our backs. We stopped walking and began to march. We were passing through the town centre, and people turned to stare as we swung by. We held up our heads and sang lustily. Stare, you civvies, stare! We’re in the army now. We’re soldiers of the King!
At the small Yorkshire town of Osset we were subjected to six weeks of intensive foot and arms drill commonly known as “square bashing”. We were also instructed in the art of firing the three-0-three Lee Enfield rifle and received some instruction in the working of the Bren gun and Thompson sub machine gun. We were all then very relieved to be sent to various technical training battalions in and around the drab, cotton-spinning town of Huddersfield – ‘Oodersfield’ to the locals. This was where my Yorkshire grandmother had been born and bred. We were now members of the Royal Corps of Signals, often abbreviated to “Royal Corps of Sigs”, but known to its irreverent members as the “Royal Corps of Pigs.” I was to be initiated into the mysteries of wireless operating, and found myself with several hundred other men billeted in a huge disused factory filled with rows of double-tiered bunks. We were split up into squads, and I became a member of 93 Ack Squad, composed of nineteen year olds like myself.
We were a noisy, unruly squad, and since the accent was now on technical training rather than on discipline, we got away with our unruliness. We were young and did some silly things. I remember the occasion when, as some sort of a gesture of independence we got together and all agreed to grow moustaches. Beards were forbidden, but moustaches were permissible. Thus after a few days every face in the squad – and there were some most unlikely ones – began to sprout whiskers. They called us the Clarke Gable Squad.
Tiny Mac, who was barely nineteen years old, grew the best moustache of the lot. Despite his small size, he had a fierce beard, and grew a huge black walrus moustache that practically covered his mouth. Poor Mac. He was wounded in an engagement with the Japanese at Imphal in Burma, and later they came and blew up the hospital where he was a patient.
Good luck, Mac. You are not forgotten.
At the end of our course, the whole squad was sent on draft to India, but some star guiding my life decreed that I should catch mumps. For a couple of weeks I mooched about the isolation hospital with a face swollen grotesquely to twice its normal size. Then came convalescence. But when I was ready to face the world again, Squad 93 Ack was on its way to the Far East.
I envied what I considered their luck in being sent abroad, but could do little about it when I was posted to an armoured brigade stationed at Staines, on the River Thames, just outside London. I was consoled by the fact that I got regular weekend leaves from here, but after a month the unit suddenly packed up in the perverse way that army units have, and we moved north to the Scottish border. We cruised around aimlessly for a week or two, then settled down at the village of Clifton, three miles outside the small town of Penrith, in the Lake District. Penrith itself was about twenty miles south of Carlisle, close to the Scottish border. Here we were to remain for two years as part of the 35th Tank Brigade of the 79th Armoured Division.
In many ways I enjoyed my stay here. I came to appreciate what life was like in a very small town as opposed to a very large one, and the hospitality of English north-country folk to strangers came as a revelation to me after the indifference of Londoners. I also had the opportunity of getting to know the beautiful Lake District of north England. I saw Ullswater in shifting mist and Ullswater in sparkling sunlight. I marvelled at the glorious views from windswept Hellvelyn, and I tasted the cold water of clear mountain springs. All this I much appreciated, even though my travels by lakeside and over steeply rising fell took place during the course of gruelling battle training arranged by a diabolical O-C.
I had two special friends in this unit. One was Basil, a black haired, blue-jowled, slim young man, the original Mr Nice Guy. Basil was studying theology and trying to make up his mind whether he was divinely inspired to take up holy orders. (He finally decided that he was not, and contented himself with lay preaching). Basil was always sincere and ready to help others in any way he could. Some took advantage of him at first, but his honesty and friendliness eventually gained him the respect of all who knew him. Basil was a Methodist, the first I had known, and for the rest of my life I was always predisposed to look upon any Methodist of my acquaintance with favour until such time as they gave evidence to the contrary.
My other friend was Tony. Tony was the same age as Basil, but was notwithstanding rapidly losing his hair. He was smallish in build and rakish in character. His intelligence was considerable and his cynicism unbounded. He had a taste for strong drink and an eye for pretty young women, having in this latter connection a way of leavening a searching stare with a flattering compliment. We made fun of him by attributing the bags under his eyes to dissipation, but nothing could annoy Tony
“Eat, drink and be merry, comrades, for tomorrow we die. Jimmy, are you going to buy me a pint of beer?”
Tony had been a journalist in civvy street, but had given it up to go into the Post Office. Like me, he still had a hankering for scribbling and, like me, he doubted his ability to make a reasonable living out of it.
We had a good time during our two years at the little town of Penrith. We got to know all the people and we were well acquainted with the local pubs. We scraped acquaintance with one or two of the local girls and “got our feet under the table” at their homes – that is, we were welcomed and treated like members of the family. Every Saturday we visited the local hop at the large hall in the centre of town with its rustic orchestra. I even started to attend a Penrith evening class to brush up on my shorthand and learn a little bit more about English literature and the French language.
My principal dislike was for the army discipline that became increasingly pettifogging and irksome. This discipline seemed to mirror the class structure of English society. You simply did not become an officer in the British Army unless you had received instruction in a certain type of accent, which betokened your superior class. In addition, you behaved with arrogance to those below you and made it always clear that they were expendable, at the best slightly idiotic, and always beneath contempt. It was the “them” and “us” syndrome we had known all our lives. I had no illusions about it, and found it completely unacceptable, although there was nothing that I could do.
We were all becoming restive, and would have welcomed transfer overseas and some concrete task to help finish the wretched war, rather than the necessity to continue vegetating in England.
At the time that we were in the Lake District, the Germans and the Russians were locked in bloodthirsty and seemingly interminable battles on the Russian Steppes, costing each nation the flower of its manhood. In North Africa the British Eighth Army under Montgomery had broken out of Egypt and chased Rommel’s Afrika Korps westwards across Libya. The Americans, who had invaded Algeria had raced in the other direction to close the jaws of the trap, and the German North African Army had been evacuated across the Mediterranean back to Europe. The Anglo-Americans had then invaded Sicily, crossed the Straits of Messina, and were now engaged in pushing the German-Italian armies up the boot of Italy.
In the Far East there was another war. This was much less publicised in England. There the British had finally secured the gates of India against the Japanese, and were forcing them back into Burma. One saw occasional film clips of Australian troops in action in New Guinea. And the Americans were doggedly thrashing the Japanese on land and sea in the Pacific wherever the opposing forces met.
In the Atlantic, the German U-boat menace was being met and mastered. And now the combined English and American Air Forces were beginning to mount horrendous bombing strikes against German cities. The Allied superiority in men, material and technology was plain for all to see. Victory was not yet within our grasp. But it was clear that this terrible conflict, now working up to a murderous crescendo, would see the final victory of the Anglo-Americans and their allies.