9 Conscripts & Volunteers: Men

As long as your heart was ticking these doctors reckoned you were alright

Londoner  I thought they wouldn’t take me because of my age, and for medical reasons, and less than eight months later I’m on a boat going for a ride.  I lived in Tottenham at the time.  1940 I got my medical, and I went in in 1941, January 2nd.  I went to a sort of Parish Hall in Forster Street for the medical.  They asked you “Have you had any illnesses?”, what sort of health you was enjoying, or otherwise.  “Alright, you’ll hear from us, on way or another”, and I thought “I hope to Christ I don’t hear from them!”  And then you got an invitation to fight for your honour, or somebody’s.  I was classified as BI not AI, which mean’t I wouldn’t be a fighting soldier, but there was plenty of other jobs to do besides fighting.  As a civilian I was a professional driver.

East London Railwayman  I was late.  I dodged ’em for 18 months.  I was working on the railway, up the Western Junction, up Stratford, back of Stratford Station.  I worked from there to Bow Junction, on that length of rail there.  When the air raids started they decided we would have to do night duty, standing on the railway for a shilling a night.  We had to parade up and down, watching the bombs drop, which wasn’t very nice at the beginning, because we were working on our own.  This was on top of our 48 hours, because we had to work Saturdays.  If you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid.  That shilling was handy though – seven bob a week.  (1)

I was on guard one night, walking up and down the railway, and there was a big air raid on.  All the lines had been blown up from previous raids – all your switch lines, so when the big mainline trains came through you had to get to get a crow bar and push the points through, put a clip on it underneath, screw it up so it held and then wave the train by.  After he went you had to undo it and push it back again.   This night a big air raid came over and there was a big express standing there, waiting for me to change the points.  Next thing a bomb dropped on Jensons and Nicholsons, the paint factory, and everywhere there was paint, like a rainbow.  I dived under these sandbags and when I got up and looked, the railway lines were standing up vertical, and there was a big hole.  The train’s standing there, chew, chew, chew, still waiting, and the signal bloke’s shouting out “Switch ’em over.”  So I said “Fuck ’em, you an’ all”, and I threw the crow bar, and I pissed off.  It was alright for the signalman, he was sandbagged in his little box.  They never saw me no more, the railway.  That was my lot.  I ran along the railway, got to Angel Lane and dived down the shelter.  “What’s the matter?”, the wife said.  “I’ve packed that lark up”, I said.  We went down to Norwich.  My sister-in-law’s husband lived down there.

In this war a lot of people didn’t want to know.  They didn’t want their sons to go, their husband’s to go

I knew two blokes who went on the run.  They had relations at Maidstone.  Straight away they was down there, and mixed in with the pikies, in with the gypos and they lived off the land.  They went fruit picking, hop picking, thieving – everything, right through the seasons working on the farms, fiddling about.  They done alright out of it.  One did get picked up, but he just wouldn’t have it.  He just kept running away again.  If you go out into the country – it’s a big place – nobody’s going to go hunting ’round the country for an odd man here and there.  They kept visiting your address now and again.  They were quite content to wait because they knew they were going to come ’round to you in time, even if it was after the war.

For example, I was working on the buildings after the war, and there was a foreman electrician there.  Very nice feller an’ all.  He used to come to work on a motorbike and sidecar.  He was on top of the roof of the building one day when someone came up and told him the police was watching his sidecar.  They caught him.  He’d been a deserter, and he was still on the run.  They caught him – years after the war!

After six months in Norfolk we came back to London and got a house in Woodford.  I was out of work, so I thought “What am I going to do now?”  I went over to Chingford, to the Labour Exchange,and they gave me a job on the dust – the dustmen, up Chingford Mount. It nearly killed me.  I was there about three weeks when the foreman called me into the office and said “I’ve got your papers here.  I can’t exempt you.  If you’d been here for three months you’d have been exempt occupation.  I’m sorry”, he said “but they’ve caught up with you.”  I more or less gave up then.  I couldn’t have gone on the run – they’d have stopped the wife’s allowance if I did.

I thought to myself  “Sod it.  Might as well go”.  She kept saying to me “You want to go!  You want to go! I know you want to go.”  I didn’t want to go, but what could I do?  I just dropped in with the rest.  Done what you was told.  Went up to London Bridge Station with the wife, got on the train, got chatting to another couple of blokes, found out where they was going, and met up with a few more from London.

"I had a wife and kiddie.  I couldn't have gone on the run - they'd have stopped her allowance if I did"

“I had a wife and kiddie. I couldn’t have gone on the run – they’d have stopped her allowance if I did”

We went to Clitheroe, Lancashire.  Old mill it was, big old mill.  At the end of this road.  Horrible looking place.  Big wall all around it.  Two big gates.  You went in there.  They said “Sit ’round, whilst we sort you out.”  They had a bar and we sat there and got half-pissed.  They called out your names and we got fitted out with our kit, and that was it.  After my basic training I went into the 17th Field Company.

All we done was try to enjoy ourselves.  Although we didn’t realise it, sub-consciously we must have realised we were losing out with the threat of being called up any minute

Dagenham, East London car worker  I had two good mates.  I regret it now, because of the money I wasted, but every night I used to go home, have a wash, put another shirt on, because we never had suits in them days, even though you could get a suit for fifty bob, but fifty bob was a lot of money. (2)  I used to go to the Anglers pub, which is just past Fords, every night, me and my two mates.  Then we started getting up parties and going up Forest Gate skating rink – men and women together.  We used to form crocodiles and all that nonsense and get slung out.  All we done then was try to enjoy ourselves.  Although we didn’t realise it, sub-consciously we must have realised we were losing out with the threat of being called up any minute, and the fact you was working long hours in a factory.

Being in the type of job I was, there were blokes ’round about the forty mark who were due to get called up before we even registered.  But they were given reserved occupation.  When we heard about that we thought that when it came to register our age group, we might also get reserved occupation, which turned out to be the case, but only for six months.  I was registered with the first lot of nineteen year olds, but I was near enough twenty before I got called up.  Briggs held us back, they were on war contract jobs.

When we were registered, we didn’t care – we wasn’t bothered about work.  At Briggs the paint shop, trim – everything – was all under the one building.  If you had mates working in the paint shop, you used to go round there dinner time and play cards and please yourself when you came back ‘cos if the foreman had a go at you – “Why should I worry mate?  I’m going to get called up anytime.”  That was the attitude amongst us crowd.

I used to work in the wood mill.  The bloke I always worked with, he was going in air crew (incidentally, he never came back), and I was going in the airforce with him.  I wanted to go in aircrew but one eye was a bit weaker than the other, so they put me in as ground crew.  The third bloke was going in the navy.  There was three of us – you worked a machine where you held the jig together, and you used to work it ’round.  It was the inside panel of a door – the part where you wound the handle for the window to go up and down.

One day we were working away, and we were singing.  The foreman used to stand in his office, up the top, glaring down at you all day.  If you went to the toilet and had a smoke, for instance,  he’d be after you: “Get the hell out of it.”  You’ve got to remember that it was a time where if you had a job you looked after it, ‘cos you was glad of the fact you was in work.  But now that we were registered, things were different.  As I say, we were singing and he came down and said “You can’t sing and work at the same time.”  So I said   “Why?  We deafening yer?  These machines are making more noise than we are.  If I want to sing, I’ll sing.”  “If I have any more out of you, you’ll be out the gate.”  But he couldn’t do anything. The same day I went home and my Mother was looking out the bedroom window.  She said “Your papers have come.”  I shot indoors and I got hold of ’em.  I went back next morning.  I went up the office.  “You know what you can do with your job now, don’t you?”

This might sound strange, but there was glamour in going into the Services, in some ways.  Your mates used to come home from the army on leave.  They used to go in the pub and everybody used to look at ’em.  They were “One of the soldiers – one of the boys.”  They’d take no notice of you.  You were only a common civvie, and gradually it got through to you that you wanted to be like them.  But you didn’t get any inclination what you was letting yourself in for, because when you drew your first week’s pay, ten bob they slung in your hand.  “Christ’, you thought, I’ve got to buy writing paper, envelopes, stamps, fags, everything out of this.” Ten bob didn’t last five minutes.

Leeds Tailor  Burtons were starting to produce khaki twelve months before the war broke out.  They set up small sections producing khaki and then when war broke out they went on to it in a very big way, but it didn’t completely liquidate all their civilian wear.

We had piecework  when we were on civilian wear and then when he had to go onto timework when we started producing khaki.  It was timework based on the average wage you’d earned as a pieceworker.  I preferred piecework.  During 1934, ’35,  I could make £5 a week – which was very good money – making dress wear.  We had about twenty-five craftsman, and anybody who bought a dress suit, or a tailcoat, or a dinner jacket in the early ’30’s, they can be wearing it now, because it was top quality made.  They were sold at a loss.  They were “loss leaders.”

I wasn’t called up until 1941.  I took so long to be called up because I was old.  In 1941 I was 32 years of age.  I wasn’t deferred.  Trade union officials were – but there’s no point in deferring a monkey suit maker!  I went into the Royal Army Service Corps, driving a lorry about.  I got browned off with that so they sent me as a drill instructor.  I was a good instructor.  In fact I was too bloody good because I realised that they’d keep me as a bloody drill instructor for the rest of my life.  I asked for a transfer to the Kings Own Light Infantry.  I got transferred and the Colonel sent for me and asked why I wanted to be transferred.  I said I wanted to be a hero!  He asked me what I did in civvy street.  I said I was a tailor.  “Smashing”, he said, “we need a regimental tailor.”  And that was that!

Londoner   I volunteered to get in what I wanted to get in – that was the RASC. (3)  I went to Romford to volunteer.  At that time I was deputy manager of Sainsbury’s at Ilford.  I’d been out as a relief manager when the manager was on holiday.  I was a bit of a naughty boy because I got ticked off for volunteering by Sainsbury’s.  The Food Trade was a sort of semi-priority trade.  Those sort of people didn’t go in until late.  They went in around ’41, ’42.  When I joined up I went to Manchester on a twelve week course.  I’m a qualified mechanic – supposed to be.  That’s what I joined up to be, but when I got posted to Africa I didn’t want to know.  That’s why I became a Company Sergeant Major.  The heat was so bad.  You couldn’t touch a lorry – red hot.

Very few aircrew I met ever confessed to being in aircrew for patriotic reasons.  It was a means of getting into the airforce and to fly.  It meant more money, rank on their arms and a decent uniform

Glaswegian  I joined the RAF because I didn’t want to go in the Corps of Signals.  It would be just like the Post Office all over again.  Because I was a Post Office engineer it was automatic that I would be channeled into the Corps of Signals.  The only thing they’d release you for was aircraft or submarines.  And I certainly wasn’t going in submarines.

Essex Teenager  I was working at Chrompton-Parkinson’s at Chelmsford when I had to register for National Service.  Eighteen I suppose I must have been.  In my own mind I was going in the RAF, come what may.  I always wanted to go in the airforce.  I was dead keen on the airforce long before the war, because I was interested in aircraft.  I used to go the Hendon air displays, and I used to keep scrapbooks of aircraft.  So the war for me was a means of getting into the airforce to fly.  Very few aircrew that I met ever confessed to being in aircrew for patriotic reasons.  It was a means of getting into the airforce and to fly.    I met lots of people like myself.  Also, it meant more money, rank on their arms and a decent uniform.

More money

I took the bus into Romford and volunteered for the airforce as aircrew.  I even had a medical.  All went well until I was filling in the form and he said “What are you?”, and I said “Apprentice electrician”, and he said “We can’t take apprentices, unless we get your company’s permission and your parents permission.”  So I went to Colchester and volunteered there and I said I was a wireman’s mate.  And I was in.  I went home and told my Father and he did his little nut.  He blew his top because as far as he was concerned I was throwing away the education that he had lavished on me.

I got notification to go to Oxford and I spent three days in Oxford on medical and aptitude tests.  I went before the aircrew selection board, after I had passed various examinations, and I was accepted as a wireless operator air-gunner.  The only reason I went for wireless operated air-gunner was that that was the quickest way in.  I was sworn in, on the spot.  I swore allegiance to His Majesty King George the Sixth, and I was given a little RAF VR badge.  This proved I was in the airforce, but as a member of the volunteer reserve, and as such was waiting to be called up.  I didn’t tell Crompton- Parkinson’s.

The foreman there was also named Parkinson and he had it in for me.  I don’t know why.  We used to work like hell of a long hours, and I used to travel from Billericay to Chelmsford on a pushbike for a while, and then I went onto a motorbike later on.  One day the snow was on the ground so thick that even the buses weren’t running, so I instead of the motorbike, I took the pushbike.  I got there a few minutes late, and he did his nut.  “Anymore of this, that and the other, and I’ll have you in the army.”  I lost my temper and said “You’ll have a bloody hard job”, and I flashed my Royal Airforce VR badge.  They then dragged out my apprenticeship form to sign and I told them what they could do with it.  And that was that.

Just before I went into the airforce my Father bought me a fluorescent watch, so I could see in the dark, and he helped me to learn morse, because at that time I was still going to be a wireless operator air-gunner.  Then out of the blue after I had been waiting a year came a letter from the Air Ministry stating that new four engined bombers were coming along and that they wanted flight engineers, which of course was right up my street.  I wrote back and said “Yes.”

I was sent to a Reception Centre.  I got there in the evening.  A place called Padgate. (4)  Yurgh!  it was like a concentration camp.  Once you got in, you don’t get out, that’s for sure.  When we got there we had our tea.  It was pilchards in tomato juice.  They were supposed to be hot, but they were warm, which made them worse really.  Great hunks of bread and marge.  I was a bit appalled by that first meal actually.  And tea in great mugs.  We got our issue of clothing the following morning.  It was issued in a rough and ready manner – slung at you.  You stuck them on, those who had uniforms to fit, because there were always those people who couldn’t be kitted out.  Eventually we’d all be properly kitted out and then we started a fortnight of drill.  Just enough to make you presentable to the outside world.  We were then sent to Redcar.

At Redcar I did a battle training course – really tough, sort of Commando style.  We also got vaccinated and inoculated at Redcar.  We queued up on the promenade hand on hip and we walked onto the pier, into the hall.  Lots of people passed out simply because of hanging around waiting for this flaming great needle to be stuck into you.  When I’d finished my square bashing, and I was a proper airman, I got sent to Cosford as a Flight Mechanic to do a trade course.  I then went on to do a fitter’s course, and then a Flight Engineer’s course.

Staffordshire Miner   I was working in Yorkshire.  I worked at South Kirkby.  It’s about ten miles from Doncaster.  I volunteered, to get out of the pit.  I volunteered for the Merchant Navy.  You had to go Barnsley before the Tribunal.  They made me exempt.  I couldn’t leave the pit.  You got papers to say you were exempt.  I felt a bit sore at the time, but I was over thirty old.  There was some miners that had volunteered before me and had went into services, and they were called back, but those that had gone abroad, they was out of it.  It was Bevin who came in and stopped it. (5)  I worked with a lot of lads who were re-directed down the mines.  I wouldn’t say they were too bitter about it.  I’d done about twelve months in the Yorkshire pits, and then I got fed up with it.  My Father said “What about Moston again?” (6)   I said “Aye, I think I’ll write a letter to the gaffer.”  You ought to see the letter I got back: “Anytime you’re ready to come back…”.  So I went to Moston.

I was running about with my pack and my water bottle full, because I thought I had to do it the military way.  I thought this is what you’ve got to do to beat this guy Hitler

Oxford Teenager   Early ’41 I volunteered.  I volunteered because I wanted to help the war effort and fight fascism.  I was only young.  I went up to London to work for the building firm I was in.  The Blitz was on and whilst I was staying there I decided I wanted to join the army.  I was going to go in the Essex regiment and then I changed my mind.  I came back down to Oxford and decided to volunteer down here.  You went to a place in St. Michael’s Street for the medical.  As long as your heart was ticking these doctors reckoned you were alright.  I did have something wrong with my spine, due to an accident in the past, but I was still accepted.  I went to Cardington as a ground gunner in the airforce.

The basic training was pretty rough.  I was one of the first lot to be made into a RAF regiment, which was 208 Squadron.  You had a lot of army officers who were transferred into the RAF regiment.  You had heavy boots and a set of khaki denims, and one suit of blue.  The khaki stuff smelt.  It was awful.  It was all spit and polish.  I had trouble with my feet and I couldn’t wear these army boots.  I went sick with it.  I went down the Sick Bay and the NCO would come in and he’d think everyone was malingering and he’d have all the windows open, in the middle of winter, and they’d have you on a parade outside, to wake you up.

When I first volunteered I put down Ground Gunner, because that’s what they had vacancies for.  The regiment wasn’t formed then.  When it was, it got more and more like the army.  My first three of four years were terrible.  I wanted to get away.  I got worse, you see – things like a route march, with my legs and feet.  I couldn’t go any further.  I just dropped out.  They used to try and put me on a charge of malingering.  It was terrible.

Glaswegian Teenager  I joined the army to fight fascism.  I was under-age.  I lied about my age.  I was 16.   ’41 I went in.  As I said, it was after the raid on Blackburn Street that I went in.  I was so sickened, I wanted to destroy the Germans.  I had a fairly clear mind, but I must have been naive in a million things.  The one thing I thought I did know was what the military was, compared to what I thought freedom was,  and what fascism was, again compared to what I thought freedom was.  As a young person I was very romantic.  I seen things in black and white terms, in great contrast.

I didn’t think I had much freedom in civvy street but I thought it was worth fighting for.  So I go into the military thinking we’ve got a crusading crowd of people here, who are even more aware than the civilian – that he’s prepared to get a gun and go and fight for that guy.  And then to find in that situation that this guy knows less about freedom than what I’d come from, and what I’d been taught.  And that everything I had been taught about the baddie, the Nazi and the fascists was plonk there in front of me, in this crowd of people who were supposed to be enlightened, informed and geared up to fight it.  So how the hell do you move from that square to the enemy?  When you find the enemy’s in your midst?

I got arrested 6 months after I was in for something I didnae do.  They stuck me in a wee oven like place and kept me in there.  They gave me 12 days Field Punishment No.1

In they days it meant that you pack all your kit, every piece, fill your water bottle and then they double you up and down for an hour with your rifle until you’re dropping.  I done it twice.  I began to think about it.  “What the bloody hell am I doing this for?  This is stupid.”  But the thing I did notice was that everybody else was seeming to do it in their stride, and I was finding it difficult.  I was prepared to accept that the army must have discipline, and that sometimes they can make mistakes like everybody else, so I said “Alright Walter, you’re a soldier, you’ve got to do this along with the rest.”  But then I thought “This is no right.  I’m no guilty.  I shouldnae being doing this”, and I stopped and took all my stuff off, put it on the thing-me and sat on it.  “That’s me finished.  I don’t deserve this.”

I don’t think I even got to my feet – two guys whipped me the way I was, into jail.  Two things I discovered was that the rest of the guys were dead fly – they didnae have water in their water bottles and they packed bits of paper in their packs. I was running about with my pack and my water bottle full because I had to do it the military way.  I thought this is what you’ve got to do to beat this guy Hitler.  How naive can you get?  But Christ, there’s no better schooling than to have come into it that way – knowing what it was all about.

The first time I ever went absent was at that time.  I was at Mossbank.  I lost my remission there for trying to escape, because I let my diet tin drop on the floor.  I was unsure, you know? – because I didnae know what it was all about.  You’d to run and grab  your diet.  All the rest of them were good at it, but I dropped mine all over the floor and it all ran over this staff’s feet, and I made a dive after it.  “Catch him!  He’s trying to escape!”  That’s a fact.  Into the cells right away.  Locked up.  Bread and water.  Taken up in front of this commanding officer. I thought “Och, I’ll give an explanation” – “I was trying to do this sir – ” and a guy’s stood at the back of me with a big pacing stick, digging it in my back every time I spoke.  I just turned round and Bang!  I belted him.  And that was me finished.  That was it all starting.  The whole situation changed.  I said “This army’s no what I thought it was.”  I just folded up my sleeves and said “Right, there’s two wars here. Let’s get intae it.”

My Father wrote to me and said “Walter,  it’s up to you”.  When I look back I was an ungrateful bugger.  The army gave me the same question.  “If you want out, it’s up to you”

Anyway, they let me out of Mossbank.  I had some leave and I went home.  My Mother had a big feed and I ate it and I was sick for days after, after eating the big feed.  I went back to my unit – a day late.  They put me into the jail again.  Let me out.  All my stuff was scrubbed white.  Soon as I came out the sergeant was on me again: “Right Morrison, blanco that green.  If it’s not blancoed green by a certain time, you’re in trouble.”  But – poverty.  I’ve nae money to do it.  “Way over to the quartermasters, try and get yourself some money.”  Go over.  My wages were 2/6d.  I never had more than 2/6d all the time I was in the army, except towards the end of the war.  My Mother got 7/6d and I got 2/6d, and that was for cleaning kit.  I had the choice between buying shaving gear and blanco.  I decided against buying blanco to get the other stuff.  They even went to the point of putting a special note up in my room above my bed, telling me if I hadn’t blancoed my stuff by a certain time, I was in jail.  I was so angry with the whole situation that I got all the kit, piled it on the edge of the bed and sat there beside it, until they came and put me in the jail.

During this time my Father had been trying to get me out of the army on the grounds that I was under age.  My Father was a real ILPer.  He highlighted it in a political way, because it was John McGovern or else Maxton who fought the case. (7)   They fought on the grounds that the recruiting people werenae asking for birth certificates, that they were falling down on their job.  In the meantime I’d met a guy in the Army – Tom MacDonald – and he and I became very friendly.  I think he was an orphan.  The army told my Father that I could get out if I wanted, but apparently I’d be called up in another year anyway.  My Father wrote to me and said “Walter, it’s up to you.”  When I look back I was an ungrateful bugger.  The army gave me the same question.  “If you want out, it’s up to you.”  So I was left to make the decision.  I’d made friends with Tom MacDonald, so I decided to stay in, because of my loyalty to the guy.  But from then on,  every time I came home, I wasnae on leave.  I was running away.

1.  Seven Bob:  35p.

2.  Fifty bob:  £2.50p

3.  RASC:   Royal Army Service Corps.

4.  Padgate,  Warrington, Lanacashire.  No longer a RAF camp.

5.  Ernest Bevin, co-founder and leader of the Transport and General Workers Union.  During the war,  from 1940,  he was Minister for Labour and National Service in the Coalition Government. 

6.  Moston, near Manchester.  The colliery was closed in 1950.

7.  Both members on the Independent Labour Party.  Maxton was leader of the ILP. McGovern was ILP Member of Parliament for Shettleston, and Maxton was ILP Member of Parliament for Bridgeton.  Neither constituency was in the area (Govan)  where Walter’s family lived.

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