15 Army Life

The King says to me  “How do you like the Army?”  I told him I didnae like it.

Fusilier   Before the invasion of Normandy the King – King George – came to inspect us.  My usual experience was that I ended up being the person who was spoken to.  This occasion wasnae any different.  The King says to me “How do you like the army?”  Without much hesitation I told him I didnae like it.  He said something like “Private something or another, there are lots of things you’ve got to do during the war.”  If looks could have killed me, everybody that passed me committed murder.

Scunthorpe Man  I didn’t take to army life at first.  From Scunthorpe we went to Newcastle and then we were posted to the Orkneys.  We were there because of Scapa Flow. (1)   We were a searchlight battery.  We mixed all right with the folk Newcastle way, but in Scotland…  There was a lot of nice people.  We went to a pub and they got us drunk on whisky.  I was bad for a week after that.  I’ve never touched it since.  But there was another element who didn’t like Englishmen at all.  You could tell.  The majority was alright.

We were in nissen huts on Orkney.  They had to have them strapped down because of the wind.  I was eighteen months on Orkney.  Too long.  We got off once.  I think it was for a fortnight.  We had no social life.  I have heard since that Gracie Fields and one or two big stars went to Orkney to entertain, but we never saw them!  At one time we all used to play Cowboys and Indians!  There was just nothing to do.  Some of them shot themselves. A sergeant shot himself.  The highlight was the free cigarette ration that used to come round every so often.  They used to arrange a film show at battery headquarters.  We used to go there.  Then we used to get what they called a Concentration Period.  A lorry would come round and pick you up and take you into headquarters for aircraft spotting.

I used to help folk cut peat and I used to go rabbiting.  I went in one of those houses they have in Orkney.  They’re just low, low shacks.  I went through the door and I was in the living room – and they started driving cows through another door!  They drove them to the other end of the building, under the same roof.  I’d rather have been in anywhere than Orkney.  I’d have rather been in France than Orkney, it was that desolate.  In winter it used to get light about 2 o’ clock in the afternoon, and it used to get dark again at four.   In the summertime it was never dark.

Whilst we were there these Airborne people came up one time because they were wanting volunteers.  Some of us went and some of us didn’t.  I think they did this on purpose.  They knew the morale of the troops would be low, and that’s how they used to pick them up, pick up volunteers for Airborne.

The only time I was in danger throughout the war was when we was on our honeymoon at Cleethorpes.  It was.  We went to an Aunt’s at Cleethorpes and they had an air raid the night we got there and they dropped a landmine at the top of the street.

There was only one time our detachment got an aircraft in the beam.  When you were doing practices you pretended as if there was an aircraft – “Aircraft spotted.  Right.  Left.  On target” and so on.  On this particular occasion they got an aircraft in the beam and the chap who was guiding the searchlight, he just stopped still.  We said “What’s the matter?  What are yer doing?  “Well” he said “nobody told me which way to go.”  So that was it.  We lost it!

Going into the army for me was physically a doddle

London Tailor  The kind of slavery the tailoring trade was, and probably still is, in small workshops, where the boss is constantly over you, where the speed of work is determined by piecework, where you push yourself because your wages depended on it – it certainly was a trade where if you finished a day’s work you knew you’d done a day’s work.  You could hardly move for fatigue.  Army life was a kind of life I had not previously experienced before, except during periods of unemployment.  It was a life of no effort, except for short spurts, like an hour on the barrack square, but the rest of the time was a great big scrounge.

What I revolted against in my first eighteen months was that I was so bored and I was constantly upset by the pettiness of authority.  I learnt all the scrounges possible – you never walk without a piece of paper or a pail in your hand because if you’re going nowhere, they’ll find you somewhere to go.  You can’t be walking nowhere in a barracks, that’s for sure.  “You!  Where are you going?”  And if you’re not going anywhere they find you some fatigue.  I had a lot of experience of jankers, which is another way of torturing people.  Apart from that, I was bored.

One night somebody let a round off, across his bows.  That put a stop to it

In all the units I was in, because they were not fighting units, the discipline was quite relaxed, so there was not too much discontent.  Except for one incident.  We were guarding an aerodrome in the Midlands, between Leicester and Derby.  We were a detachment of about forty or fifty men.  The majority of us were doing 24 hour guards, on and off.  It was a transport command.  One of the officers, a middle-aged bloke, was a hard case.  He felt very important and he was a bit regimental, which was not on.  On a detachment it never is.  That’s OK in a barracks where the Colonels are about and the Majors are about, but you don’t expect a Lieutenant to be regimental out on a small detachment.

This bugger used to creep around at night, in his plimsolls, trying to catch blokes having a smoke or a kip.  It was getting a bit much, him creeping around.  He was bound to catch you!  There wasn’t a duty that you didn’t snatch a smoke or try and have your head down for ten minutes.  Out in the middle of nowhere we didn’t expect all this shit.  It was such a loosely run unit, we used to collect 4d a man for the cook to buy little extras, like spices and things.  The cook had previously been a ship’s cook and we were having a life of Riley, except for this sod who kept us on our toes on guard – which was the worst thing about being there, because on the 24 hours off it was a doddle.  We could go into town  or go and have a drink.  Everybody was seething about this sod.  One night somebody let a round off, across his bows.  That put a stop to it.  The bloke who did said he thought he saw somebody looking suspicious and when he couldn’t get a reply to his challenge he put a round over his head, to stop him.  The officer never again crept around in his plimsolls. On the contrary!  He’d be half a mile away and he’d be shouting “It’s alright sentry, Orderly Officer here, sentry.”

They got you doing all sorts of stupid things, like white-washing the stones around the nissen hut with a little toothbrush

Oxford Lad  The first three or four years in the army were very, very bad, because I never thought the war was going to end at all.  If you ever made a complaint about anything, like the food, you got punished.  They’d take your name and the next thing you knew, you’re on fatigues in the cookhouse.  They got you doing all sorts of stupid things, like white-washing the stones around the nissen hut with a little toothbrush, or they had us blacking the bottom of our boots.  It was all spit and polish.  We had a mirror in the middle of the nissen hut.  You had to look in that before you went out, because the guards on the gate were watching to see if you were properly dressed.   There’d be a few MPs in the town and they’d try and catch you out, for having hands in pockets and that sort of thing.  And you always had to dodge the MPs on the railway station.

Once we had a Warrant Officer – PT bloke – very strict.  I had a travel warrant to travel home.  You had to leave fairly early and I got a chit so that I could, because the connection was at Bletchley.  I was walking down (and in the Services you obey the last order) and this Warrant Officer saw me.  “Where are going?”  I said “I’m going out.”  “You were” he said.  “Get back.”  I had to change back into denims again and had to go down the lecture room.  They were talking about Mills bombs – how to strip them down.  I couldn’t go that night.  I had to go the next morning.

For punishments they would have you running around the square with full kit on, holding your rifle above your head.  I had to do that many times.   Or if your kit wasn’t laid out properly they used to come round and knock it over the floor and you’d get detention.

I actually signed up again in 1945 because I’d got used to the Services by then and I was worried about coming back to unemployment in civilian life.  So I signed on for a short period.

There was no freedom.  It was worse than being in school

ATS Woman   I didn’t like the fatigues in the army.  I didn’t like being told what to do and being told to be up by seven and to be in by a certain time.  If you went on your half day off you still had to be in by a certain time.  There was no freedom.  It was worse than being at school.

It was a mixed Heavy A.A. Battery.  Men and women.  They were a decent lot of girls, from all parts of the country.  That was what I really liked in the army, the comradeship.  I really enjoyed that part of it.  Things like washing the Naafi floor wasn’t very pleasant, or washing up your greasy mess tin in cold water and peeling potatoes and picking up matches because we were going to have an inspection by the Brigadier.

The food was grim.  I couldn’t eat my dinners.  The meat was horse.  I’m sure of it.  I’ve never tasted anything like it since.  The Naafi meal, on the other hand, wasn’t bad.  You’d get beans and things.  That meant a lot to us during the war – beans.  If you went out you had Toc H canteens or YMCA canteens.  There was a big one at Coventry.  In Leamington Spa, which is where we used to go into, there was a cafe there, where you could get lovely cream buns.  That was a real treat.

I’d rather be under men, when it comes to pettiness

The first battery I was posted to was in Kenilworth near Coventry.  This was after the Coventry blitz.  We were in nissen hits with latrines.  When it rained it used to come in and pour onto your bed.  The Medical Officer came ’round and he simply told us to move our beds in between the drips.

Her Husband  You and I met on Birmingham Station once and you were accosted by one of your police.

ATS Woman   Because I’d put my stockings – awful thick things – inside out.

Her Husband  “Excuse me, do you mind if I speak to….”

ATS Woman  I only got a reprimand, but it seemed so petty.  It was typical.  I didn’t really like women officers.  I’d rather be under men, when it comes to pettiness.

I was terrified of the guns going off.  I used to be shaking

I was on a height-finder, which was a machine to find the actual height of the plane.  You could only use that during daylight, and you didn’t get much action during the day.  It was mostly at night, and then you went down to the plotting room and I was a height computer.  You had to get the bearing and angle.  I was terrified of the guns going off.  I used to be shaking.  It was either Cardiff or Birmingham being bombed, and the sirens went, and there I was, running with my hands over my ears, clutching my tin hat.

Being down in the plotting room we heard it all.  At one battery we had 4.8’s, but mostly it was 3.7’s.  They’d have four and we were right in the centre.  I used to jump a mile.  I hated it.  It was the anticipation.  We were taken out of the Royal Artillery in 1944 because we weren’t wanted anymore – because of D Day, and we were transferred to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.

I was married in 1944, and then I discovered I was pregnant.  I got an automatic discharge in the February of 1945.  When I was first stationed at Kenilworth quite a lot of girls were having babies.  There was one girl – I was going on leave – and she walked with me, and she was very nice and very, very young.  Because of that we had to have medicals every month.  We used to line up, stripped to the waist.  It was sometimes said that girls  wanted to have babies to get out of the services, as if you were pregnant it meant automatic discharge.  We had quite a rash of them.

When I was discharged I believe I was given some clothing coupons, but not any clothing.  I got my discharge for the Monday.  Well, I wasn’t going to stay the week-end, so I did something I’d never really done before.  I travelled all night and I had to risk the MPs not finding me, but I managed to get through to Bristol and arrived safely at Temple Meads.  The other time I did something I shouldn’t have done was with my friend Barbara.  We were fed up.  We didn’t seem to be getting the days off we were due, so one day – it was summer – we decided we’d just take the day off.  We walked out in the morning and got into Coventry and we went to the pictures.  It was Paul Robeson in a picture, down in what is now the centre of Coventry, because Coventry then was all temporary wooden shops.  We went twice to the pictures, and we had a really nice day.  When we got back we got three weeks fatigues – we couldn’t go out for three weeks and we had to do extra work at night.  We weren’t at all rebellious usually.  We were just fed up.

I was shanghaied into bloody army.  I didn’t want to go in but I had no alternative

Boy Soldier   When you signed on, you signed on to complete your Boy’s Service and then eight and four.  You were committed for twelve years. At 14 year old you signed to do until eighteen, and then eight with the colours and four with the reserve.  It’s all abolished now, I think.  The maximum they can get you to sign is five now.

I regretted going into the Boy Soldiers as soon as I went in.  I was shanghaied into bloody army.  I didn’t want to go in but I had no alternative.  It was proposed by bloody headmaster at school.  I was living with my Grandmother and that was hell.  Family were split up.  I’d had me ups and downs, and where could a young lad go?

Even as Boy Soldiers we were on regular routine.  We were on peace-time establishment (this was during the war), but first and foremost you were a soldier.  I went into the Boy’s Army in February ’44.  I was sent to Catterick.  The discipline was absolutely fucking…  – Well, you wouldn’t credit it.  When it came to educating Boy Soldiers it was just bloody sadistic.  Absolutely sadistic.  When you were doing drill they used to have what they called “backsticks”.  What it was, they used to put a brush down your arms, behind your back, put their knee in your back, and you’ve got this stick over your elbows.  This was regular.  You used to go on parade with your brush.  When you got to fifteen they used to swop your brush and give you a rifle, and they used to do the same with that – over your head, and over your shoulder blades.  We were trained in Signals, but everyone, no matter what their trade, had to learn to shoot a rifle.  We used to go up to range and fire so many shots each week.  I was shooting 303’s at fourteen.

My mate, when we saw afterward, he said ” Everyone of you, every time you came out, you were screaming your bleeding heads off”

Paratrooper   I went into the Forces the early part of 1942 and I came out in 1946 because my demob group was put back twice.  I was in the RAF at first but I got transferred to the army.  They took all the A1 blokes out of the airforce and navy and transferred them to the army.  For a minute, a minute before twelve we were civvies.  We could have hopped it and they couldn’t have done anything.  But we were stuck out in the wilds of Lancashire, so it wouldn’t have done us no good, and the camp was well guarded.

When I joined the army we were shoved over to Ireland, Northern Ireland, at the foot of the mountains of Mourne.  It was a hell of a bloody place.  Drizzling with rain every day.  One day they sat us all in the canteen and we were thinking “What the bleeding hell’s going on here?”  Next thing we knew there was a warrant officer and a sergeant came on the stage.  They were in the Parachute Regiment.  They showed us a parachute, how it worked, opening it out.  I said to my mates “‘Ere, if we join that mob we’ll get away from this bleeding place.”

We’d been there a month  and we were supposed to be there three months.  And the bloody rain!   We used to go out of a night time and dig a little hole in the ground, get into it and cover ourselves with our groundsheet.  This was on manoeuvres.  It’d be belting with rain all night.  We were cheesed off with it.  So my mates said “Yeah, that’s a good idea.  Let’s volunteer.”  We all goes up and volunteers.  We have our medicals and it turns out that out of the twelve of us that came out of the RAF I’m the only one that’s passed his medical.  I was lumbered!  I was going to leave my mates – not only that – it turns out that I’ve still got to stay in Ireland for 3 months!  I had to do another lot of groundwork.

I joined the Parachute Regiment just after the Arnhem turnout. (2)   I jumped thirty-two times.  I was on experimental jumping too.  They had half the parachute missing.  It was great.  You only got nerves the second time you ever jumped.  The first time you didn’t  know, but the second time you knew and you was like jelly.  One of my mates on the ground who was waiting his turn, when he saw me afterwards he said “Every one of you, every time you came out you were screaming your bleeding heads off.”  I said “You was the same.”

It was the second one you was frightened of.  It was out of a balloon.  It was horrible that. When you got up there and it stopped and it was quiet.  And it was swaying about.  And you’ve got to make the effort to get out.  With an aircraft the slipstream got you, and you was away.  You never had no chance to change your mind.  But in a balloon you’re eight hundred foot up, you’ve got to make your own effort, and when you look down….

There was not a finer crowd of blokes.  Not army wise, but to go out on the old piss, get in a punch-up

Training in the Airborne was very tough and very strict.    Every morning before breakfast we would have to go on a five mile road run.  We’d finish coming back to one end of the camp.  There were cliffs either side and the gates were in the middle.  There were ropes hanging down this cliff.  You had to come down these ropes backwards and then you ran to the cookhouse and had your breakfast.  You had to do that every morning when you was training.

We had a bloke from the Regimental Police.  He was only 20.  He was a right bastard.  He was a Corporal. We knew that on top of one of these cliffs was a bloody great boulder.  We worked out that when this bloke was coming into camp one night, we’d knock it over.  But somebody must have given him the wheeze, ‘cos on the night concerned he came in another way. There was a couple of blokes coming in that night, instead, and being dark we couldn’t see who they were.  We toppled the boulder over.  Fortunately it missed, but he knew it was meant for him, and he got himself posted.

I wish I’d be in the Airborne right from the start of the war.  I’ve always been glad of the fact that I went through that experience.  There was not a finer crowd of blokes.  Not army wise, but to go out on the old piss, get in a punch-up.  We’d walk round Southampton calling out to all the sailors:  “Come out you bastards!”  They didn’t want to know, did they.

Army Detention Centre Inmate  The vast majority of cases in detention, when I was in, were what they called “non-reporters”.  These were youngsters who, nine cases out of ten, were illiterates – people who couldn’t either read or write – they couldn’t read their notices for call-up.  They were really backward, nervous young people.  When they were caught they had to do a short period – three months or less, I believe, before they entered service.  The others would be people who were absent without leave, of longer than a certain  period, otherwise it would be dealt with by confinement to barracks.  They were a large proportion.  Then we had a strange category of people who had trained as paratroopers, but when it came to it, wouldn’t jump.  They were given eighty-four days as a standing thing – if they continued to refuse to jump after their training period.

I know a lot of people stick up for these blacks in this country, but as far as I was concerned they were savages in 1940

Company Sergeant Major, RASC    When I first joined I was getting ten bob a week.  Five bob for myself and I gave an allowance of five bob to my Mother.  When I got to Africa I was promoted and I was earning more than a Captain was in this country.  Being a little higher promotion in life I was offered to be trained as an officer, but I refused that as I knew I hadn’t the brains for that.  I had a personal servant out there.  The bulk of the senior army staff were whites, and then you had the artisans, who were Asians, and then you had the wogs.  I could speak Swahili.  I passed me exams.  It took me three years.  Five exams I went in.  Failed on four and got through on the fifth.

I know a lot of people stick up for these blacks in this country, but as far as I was concerned they were savages in 1940.  One time we had a convoy coming from Nairobi.  The drivers were Africans, straight out from the bush, from the jungle.  They’d never been given proper training.  They’d never seen a lorry in their life.   Leaving Nairobi was alright, but outside it, going through the villages – (when I say villages, I mean a dozen mud huts every 20 or 30 miles) – they was scared of everything.  In the lorry behind me there was a load of them sitting in the back of the lorry.  The lorry was loaded up with 40 gallon drums.  Going down Mount Kenya the driver lost control of the lorry and it hit a tree and all these 40 gallon drums squashed the ruddy lot.  One of them got killed.  We were losing lorries all the time on that convoy.  There were 80 lorries and we were going to Addis Ababa.  By the time we got there we had 16 lorries left.  They were going down ravines, and off the escarpment in Kenya.

Berbera was the worst place I went to.  That was one of the Death Cells of Africa

We should only have been there three months.  That was the limit, but we was there for nine months.  It’s a wonderful place to look at.  It’s on the Gulf of Aden.  You’re going down to the sea for about a day – you don’t realise it, but you’re gradually going down and down, and it’s getting hotter and hotter and hotter.  When we were there six months when we should only have been there for three, they sent us to a place called Sheikh.  It was a bloody mountain in the middle of the desert.  It took us six hours from the beach to get there.  The road up it was one way.  In the morning it was for going up, and the afternoon you were allowed to come down.

When you got up there, there was all greenery.  There was goats and trees and everything.  And there were all these bloody South Africans, all covered in sores and swollen lips and talking absolutely silly.  They’d been where we’d been for a year and that’s how they were.  When we got up there, there was me and my old mate George.  We was thinking twice whether to go back. We was going to over-do our stay, but as we were NCO’s…  It was when the Italians were still in the war and we were pushing them out of Abyssinia. That’s when I was out there.

The cigarettes we had were diabolical.  The Victory V’s were made in India.  What also were rough were the South African Springboks and Cape to Cairo

Mechanic, North African Campaign   With the trash, and I repeat, the trash they were sending out regarding tanks, such as Matildas and Valentines, you couldn’t defeat a bloody Girl Guide.  The guns on them were pathetic.  The Matilda did have a skirt ’round the tracks, admittedly.  See, if you hit a tank’s tracks you’ve knocked him out.  And after you’ve stopped him you brewed him up with a shelling of petrol or something like that.  It’s the most unhappy thing for anybody when a tank brews up.

There were three hundred American tanks diverted from the Pacific theatre of war.  They were called Grant and Shermans, with Wright Cyclone radial engines in them, and we do honestly believe that they turned the day.  Up until they arrived there was, for instance, a tank battle that took place at El Coquier, midway between Gambut and Tobruk, and there sixty tanks brewed up in that battle.  We saw the wrecks of the bloody things with tracks twisted and guns pointed upwards, and blackened where the poor sods had burnt in them.

When it was June you’d not work from twelve to five.  Siesta.  It was daylight to ten, half past, so you’d make up that leeway and work from 5 to 10.  Tanks were coming back needing repairs, lorries were coming back, needing repairs.  You had to get cracking on it because there was a push on.  You were far enough back to work in comparative safety, although no-one’s safe when there’s a bomber about.

We had biscuits out there, that I didn’t like, but “M & V” which we started to get – meat and veg – that was quite nice.  And what the cooks could do with corned beef was nobody’s business.  We also got fishcakes.  We didn’t like them, and the cigarettes were diabolical.  The Victory V’s were made in India.  What also were rough were the South African Springboks and Cape to Cairo.  And then, somebody said it was thanks to Montgomery, we started getting decent fags – Woodbines and Senior Service and Capstan.  But even then, the stuff that went to make your free ration was rubbish.    You knew it was going to be rough, so no good crying about it.  If you let it get you down, you come out your tent, look north, look south, east and west, there’s not a bloody thing to see.  You think to yourself  “What have I let myself in for?”  You take 118 degrees fahrenheit.  That’s warm.  I went for four showers one afternoon in a place called Tel el-Kabir.  It didn’t make any difference.  I went across the desert on a motorbike.  Still bloody hot.  There’s a hot wind coming at you.  You didn’t know what to do with yourself.

Old Churchill came over at Alamein, just prior to the push, and come up with his cigar and his “V” – Victory sign.  “Better times around the corner.”  And we were going  “And when are you going to get us home, you pot-bellied old bastard?”

I still believe the finest general of the Second World War was Rommel. A soldier and a gentleman.  When he over-run Tobruk, and over-run a hospital he personally went round and see if there was anything he could do for the wounded – British and Allied wounded.

Montgomery was a…..  He brought his Leyland Retriever – which was made into a mobile living quarters – he brought that in for a job to be done on it.  Bleeding thing – where it could be locked up, it was locked up.  He had a 24 hour guard on the bleeding thing.  They couldn’t lock the cab up because we had to work on it.  He used to sit in it and read a passage from the Bible, or a Prayer Book, then he’d work out what sort of push he’d have tomorrow.

Old Churchill came over at Alamein, just prior to the push, and come up with his “V” – Victory sign.  “Better times around the corner.”  And we were going “And when are you going to get us home, you pot-bellied old bastard?”  That’s how much time they had for him.

At Suez we were cutting up rough because we were working during the day and then, as soon as we were finished, they got us digging trenches – slit trenches.  We  weren’t happy about that.  There was a lot of muttering going on.  We used to be able to get into Suez and go to the pictures.  I remember seeing that Laurence Olivier as a horrible beast in some film – can’t remember the name. (3)   Now that we were digging these bloody slit trenches all that suddenly stopped.  We dug them because they said if they didn’t hold Rommel at El Alamein we’d be so thin on the ground after that, he’d push straight through to Alex, straight past the Pyramids, through Cairo and straight down.

As a result of our mutterings the CO got us on parade.  Captain Phillip Brownlow – “Pigshead”.  “It’s been brought to my attention,” he said “that there is mutterings.  Men don’t like what is happening.  I don’t know if you realise it, but up in the other side of Alex men are dying.  The fact that you have been instructed to dig slit trenches means that if they’re not held, you will have to stand in these trenches and defend your camp.”  Thanks a lot!  He said  “All I want to impress upon you people is that if this sort of muttering goes on, it’s tantamount to mutiny – the punishment of which is death!”  Nice feller, we thought.

As it happens, of course, they held him at Alamein knowing that they couldn’t be encircled.  Meanwhile Jerry had stretched his lines of communication to such an extent that his fuel wasn’t catching him up and he had to stop and rest.

Montgomery drove into Tripoli 23 January and automatically closed all the brothels!  That made him very popular!

After that we never went backwards.  They were on the retreat for good.  You had to see it to believe it when that retreat started from El Alamein.  The Italians – I’m not exaggerating – must have been a line three abreast from here to Liverpool Street.  Almost two miles.  Terrific line.  Eyeties of all shapes and sizes.  They didn’t want to know, they were so dejected.  The Jerries took any decent transport they had, took what was any use to them, and said “Piss off, we don’t want you.”  They just left them.  They were an encumbrance.  The poor sods were saying “Aqua, aqua – water, water.”  Pathetic.  But when they were top dogs they were bastards.  Oh yes.  The Germans were different, they would give you an even break.  With the Germans, I think we were pretty much the same as they were.  They wasn’t short on guts.  They’d fight.  I’m not talking about Nazis – I’m talking about ordinary German serving soldiers.  Funnily enough, you had a lot of time for each other, so you thought to yourself “What the bloody hell are we fighting about?”

I was having a cognac with a German, Christmas – just south of Tobruk.  We’d built a big hangar, sort of cross pieces and canvas over the top, and we used to repair our guns there.  We went to the Naafi and got some drinks.  Next to us was an American Liberator squadron.  We invited them into our place, they invited us into theirs.  I was having a drink with the Free French down the road – everybody was there in North Africa – South Africans, Australians, Kiwis, coloureds – there was a terrific number of Indians fighting in North Africa: 4th Indian Division, 9th Indian Division.  Anyway, I’m having this drink with this German and he’s got this French Foreign Legion uniform on. He tells me “I’m German.” “German!”  “Yes.  I come from Frankfurt.”  I said “How do you feel about going against your fellow countrymen?”  “Well,” he said “I signed the papers for the Legion and I go where the Legion takes me.”

There was the feeling that the infantry man was the shite of the war

Fusilier   There was the feeling that the infantry man was the shite of the war.  He was just shit.  He was canon fodder.  There was a feeling in the infantry that could you could drop more shit and bombs on top of people’s heads than you could throw up, at the guy up the stairs.  The navy might fight a battle with their long distance guns, and they might fight and know that if they survived it, they might be able to return to base where he could get a normal meal and a good kip at night and go down the town and meet his bit of stuff.  I’m not saying it was a great life for a sailor at sea during the war – there was the threat of U boats, and all the rest of it.  I would never have liked the thought of spending a night in the sea, but that apart, sailors got fed well.  They could almost be sure of getting their grub.  We were on troopships.  We seen what went on.  But we, we were shite.  We were part of the dirt.  When we dug a hole, that’s where we slept for fucking weeks on end, wondering what was happening.  Guys trying to bomb us from the top, and other guys trying to shoot at us from different angles.  Everybody trying to pound us into the ground.

Many of the guys there would have been just as comfortable sitting in a Nazi or SS uniform

When we were sent to India, for some reason or other, most of the guys seemed to take a completely different stance, as if they’d been set free in some kind of way.  They became as bad as what I thought the Nazis were.

When we arrived in Kalyan (4) the overall Commanding Officer took the whole shipload of us and said  “Well, you are now in India.  Forget about your democratic ideas.  This is a completely different situation here, and I’ll expect you to treat these people” – it was “these wogs” – “in the same way as the regulars have been treating then for hundreds of years.”  It was like giving everybody an individual licence to what they effing well liked.  And to be quite frank, they did.  In lots of ways I wasnae terribly happy about my own people, round about me.

The same day as we got this lecture from the Commanding Officer at Kalyan a couple of children came into the barracks.  We’re all lying in our charpoys, all out.  Heat killing us.  The children came round begging – and I would say there were about twenty to thirty blokes in the room, each side, and it’s safe to say the majority of them were sitting with their penises out, waving them at the kids – “Come over here.  Suck this.”  Some of them hit the kids, but these kids were so pushed around all through their life that they just took it.  They didnae bother with it.  I would suggest I was more affected than they were.  I was over-sensitive to the situation.

The kids came to me and I gave them some money and I finally got the children out.  Then I got up on my bed and said “Listen, the lot of yous – there’s no need for you what’ve just done.  If they’re begging, we’re partly responsible for their begging.  If you don’t want to give them money just say ‘No, chase it.’  All these actions that yous are making, exposing your penises and asking them to suck it, there’s never any need for that.  You’re just degrading yourself, and putting yourself in the same situation as the people you’re supposed to be fighting against – the Nazis.”  I’d have been as well talking to a brick wall.

Many of the guys there would have been just as comfortable sitting in a Nazi or SS uniform.  It got to the stage where it looked as if I was going to have to fight everybody.  I was in Kalyan  for a couple of weeks and by the time we had left not one individual would have said or touched one of the Indians whilst I was around.  That’s the kind of character I was.  I was well known.  I wasnae liked by the officers.  They preferred the men to be the other way.

One of the big complaints about soldiers in the Far East – they called them the Forgotten Army – was that they werenae getting their mail.  I know why they werenae getting their mail.  The guys were half-inching it

In the first days I was in India I was sent to the Post Office department in Kalyan, where the mail was distributed through India to the front line.  One of the cries in the Post Office department was “Wonder what’s in that?  Open it up!”  If it was cigarettes or something they thought might be perishable, they used to say “Och, he’ll probably be deid.”  That’s the reason why guys werenae getting their mail sometimes.  It wasnae a matter of going into the Post Office and regimental freedom-loving British soldiers saying “Oh yes, that’s got to go to this regiment, they’re up there fighting at the front.”  It was “What’s in it!  Let’s see.  Fags!  Gie us that.  Och, he’ll be deid.”  That was the attitude.  I daresay the guys at the front would have done the same if they’d been at the other end.

When I went out there they were  reforming the Chindits again.  Wingate got killed in a crash, so they started up a second unit

If I remember right,  the first unit was made up of units like the Black Watch that had come from Tobruk, where they’d been slaughtered,  and there were very few of them left. (5)   I believe the unit was even made up by deserters from the French Foreign Legion.  Och, it was a shambles their lot.  When I went into it, that was the situation – it was the tatters and the remains.  They were building it up into a fighting unit again.

I was in the Royal Scots Fusiliers at the time and suddenly, like that, I’m switched over and I was in the Black Watch, which was an airborne unit.  Perhaps it was a good way to get rid of a difficult character.  Anyway, that’s where I went, and I must confess the first night I spent there I lay all night in tears – and I was a tough character.  I had salt burns right down each side of my face – just seeing the state of the men.  Oh it was terrible.  It was like being planted in hell.  They were just bones – just sitting – drinking jungle juice.  My first impression was that I was in hell, and this was all the devils – thin arms, fighting one another.  It was a madhouse.

Within a couple of weeks I was one of the toughest amongst the lot of them.  We were being trained for a mainland landing.  All the training was happening a hell of quick.  It was hell.  We lost people in river crossings that were equal to anything you seen in that North West Passage. (6)    You don’t need a human enemy to beat you in the jungle.  I’ve been in marches – and this is no talking about being in action – this was patrols and training that lasted fourteen days – fifteen days – where we were hacking our way through the jungle with machetes.  Officers with maps trying to figure out where there might be a water hole, and coming to a big salt lake and guys collapsing – hundreds of men lying out, leaving them to die – I’m talking about dying with nothing happening.  Nothing to do with Japanese.  There was nothing you could do, except leave them.

The first experience I had of being without water was one particular time when we were right out of water – completely out, and we came to an old paddy field cum water pool. There was oxen in it, and it was covered in green slime and oxen shit.  The officer said “That’s your water.”  We all just sat and looked at it.  “No drinking that.”  “No touching that.”  We couldnae have been bad enough because we didnae want to touch it.  We were issued with chlorine tablets to put in to it, to purify it.  As I say, we didn’t want to touch it.  But we’re starting to learn.  We sat there for about half an hour, camping by the thing. Slowly but surely chuggles were getting filled up, and the tablets in. When we started to march there wasnae any chuggles hanging down the front.  They were all hanging down the back.  Still nobody’s touching it,  but one by one it’s “Fuck your slime, fuck your dirt.” It was OK.  It was a wee bit chloriney taste – but it was water.

Our grub on patrols was mostly K ration.  The story was that the Americans rejected it.  They wouldnae have it, and gave it to us.  It was a pack with an oily surface, and inside it was all the things Americans liked – funny things – things that British people don’t eat.  One of the things was a laxative bar that was like ten million flies compressed.  It was so bad that I went a long time without any food.  I couldnae eat it.  I done my best.  There were things we tried to eat.  Was it also soup and coffee in it?  I can’t remember.  The reason for the thing being oily was that you opened it and halved it, turned it up on its edge and lit it.  The oil and the grease kept it burning and you were able to cook it.  It was shite.  Honestly.  I’m convinced more guys ended up with stomach troubles, than with anything else.  (7)

As far as patrols in the jungles – most of the guys on both sides spent their time trying to avoid each other, if they could

You got the fanatical officer or the guy who wants a battle, but they were few and far between.  First time I ever saw a Japanese was a prisoner of war.  I shite myself, to be quite honest.  You had heard all these tales, about all these horrible Japanese and how they fight to the death.  On this occasion two Japanese were under the custody of an American guard. He asked us to give them our rifle, with our scabbard – bayonet – on.   It might sound strange, but we couldn’t see that was the right thing to do, but eventually we gave our rifles, and the Japanese took up a stance to give us a demonstration in how they fought each other using bayonets.  The American guy said “They’re like anybody else.  For a few scraps of extra grub they’ll show you anything.  Even sell their Granny.”  That was a big lesson.  You were beginning to feel there wasn’t much difference really, in a lot of ways, between how we felt and how they felt.

I could sit down and write page after page of atrocities that happened

I’ve a mate.  A great bloke, honestly.  He was a conscientious objector, and lay in Barlinnie Prison for nearly six months with no clothes, rather than put on the army uniform.  That’s what they done.  Left them without any clothes.  He eventually put the uniform on.  Once he put it on he gave up, and became a soldier.  He was in Imphal, and he had just come back out of the first Chindit trip. (8)   A great bloke, but in some ways, evil with it.  I seen him getting Indian women and raping them.  Smashing their face in and raping until it got so bad that I had to fire at them to get them off.  I was known.  I had a reputation, and once I started threatening them, they got frightened.  I seen things like that.  Old women with their tits hanging down like chapatis  – raping them.  They’d women with kids, forcing them to squirt the milk out of their breast.  Things that were – if you’d seen it, you’d say “Oh, that’s Nazis”, but that was British troops.  Guys that you think butter wouldnae melt in their mouth in Britain.  I’ll never forget that.  Never, never forget that.  Never.

I.   Scapa Flow.  British Naval Base.

2.  Arnhem.  A disastrous Allied attempt to capture the Dutch town of Arnhem and several bridges over the Nederrijn river in September 1944.  The British Ist Airborne Division lost nearly three quarters of its strength, and never saw active service again.

3.  The ‘horrible beast’ that Laurence Olivier played was Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939).

4.  Kalyan is  just inland on the eastern seaboard of India, near Mumbai (Bombay).

5.  The Black Watch were not part of the first formation of Chindits.  The 2nd Gurkha Rifles and the 3rd Battalion Gurkha Rifles and the 13th Battalion of the King’s Liverpool regiment were the main elements.  The Black Watch did take severe injuries and loss of life at Tobruk, and were part of the second formation and expedition of the Chindit force.

6.  North West Passage, (1940), directed by King Vidor with Spencer Tracy.

7.  K rations.  The Wikipedia entry on K rations quotes that at the sight of K Rations “two of Wingate’s men vomited.”

8.  The battle of Imphal, and the battle of Kohima,  March – July, 1944 resulted in the largest defeat Japan had, up until then, experienced.  The battle was largely fought by Allied Indian Regiments.  The Chindits were involved in behind the lines harrying activity.  Their military impact was not of great significance, but it is claimed – though proof  not given – it had a positive psychological impact within the Allied Forces in the Indian sub-continent.  Arguments still continue on the  effectiveness of the Chindits.

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