R A Wilson
Back at Brighton, we packed, were inspected, drew ammunition and haversack rations, ate some food, nearly always awful! If ever the old Army jingle applied it was here, “Who called the cook a bastard?” “Who called the bastard a cook?”
And we tried to sleep. Reveille was at one o’clock in the morning, or it may have been two, then on with equipment, heave up kit bag, sling rifle and on parade. Roll call, inspection, coming and going from authority. Then 7 platoon SHUN! “Right turn,” “Advance.” 8 platoon and 9 followed, the train waited at the platform and a few early risers were here and there to wish us luck.
Soon the equipment was on the racks, under seats in the space normally reserved for feet and haversack rations were being explored.
“Effing cheese again,” said the first voice. Followed by, “And bleeding bully beef!”
By the time we were running along the coast to Southampton, keen gardeners were already at work, straightening their backs as they heard the train, no doubt at an unusual time, and raising their hands and hoes in salute as they saw it was crowded with troops.
A great number of the rough hewn sandwiches were hurled out along that line with the usual Army curse and an additional, “We’ll get something worth eating on the boat.” And we didn’t.
Loading a Division takes time. A boat was loaded, pulled away, sailed down Southampton water and anchored off the Isle of Wight. Others followed.
There we remained till about midnight, when it was up anchor and off. Hardly anyone had crossed the Channel before, so everyone was fearful of sea sickness, but the sea was flat, just a gentle up and down for us at the sharp end and all round the winking signal lights of our naval escort. They left us when daylight revealed the French coast and a curious plane with a pusher propeller came out, a pretty ramshackle object it was, and in no way conducive to giving us confidence in those who’d been portrayed as, “Our mighty ally.”
The cobbled stone quay to the transit shed was unsympathetic to feet carrying a full load, Field service marching order, with added kit bag is quite enough and me and mine were turned round when halfway, to clean up the boat deck. We arrived at the transit shed eventually, to collect a much needed tin of machonachies. Machonachies for the uninitiated, was meat and vegetable stew and no doubt quite wrongly, it always reminded me of another story.
“What’s this?” said the soldier of the stuff plopped into his mess tin.
“Rabbit, don’t give me that! It’s not all rabbit.”
“Well, there might be a little horse with it.”
“A little, how much?”
“Well, perhaps fifty-fifty, one horse, one rabbit.”
Next we were on a train, all cattle trucks, ours uncleaned from carrying lime, which sauntered on square wheels through the countryside. And, after many, there was another halt and this time we de-trained to the welcome sight of our own transport.
The lorries made good speed through the deepening dark of an early spring evening. Heads were peering round the canvas tilt and in some cases over it. Often, small parties of troops were spied with smoke rising from cooking fires and always the sight was greeted with a remark such as, “That’ll be our advance party!” And hungry bellies hopefully added, “They’ll be cooking up!” But it never was, until long after dark on a, by now, slightly drizzling evening, we stopped at a farm on the edge of a tiny village. No smoke from cooking fires of an advance party was to be seen, only almost total darkness, mud and primitive farm lofts.
The sorting out always seemed interminable and not made any shorter by the persistently pouring rain. But at last we clattered up a rough wooden stair to find room on the right for 7 section and a couple of 8, whilst the rest of the platoon, all of 9 section and the remainder of 8, were on the left. Both were lofts over, in our case, a cart-shed and in the other, a cow-shed or stable. There were no lights but a couple of torches. The roof sloped shallowly down, leaving precious little room to stand upright, even in the centre and hardly sufficient room for feet on the edges. There was a good deal of bad language before spaces were claimed, kit dumped, blankets unrolled and a sort of bed made down.
The only way to cover feet was to wrap the blanket round them and push, a greatcoat thrown over, boots or kitbag for pillow completed the arrangements and finally all was quiet, save for the occasional curse as one turning over, fell foul of his neighbour. Then the ‘fall in’ blew and the whole lot returned to chaos and the name of the bugler was very much taken in vain, as well as that of the chap who had ordered the call.
Down to the rain and mud and dark we went, hungry, tired and unhappy.
Before reveille the rain had ceased, and in the morning light, the place looked civilised if not homely.
The sorting out process carried on. Whilst the troops were confined to billets, such as the Company Sergeant Major, the Quartermaster Sergeant and a Sergeant seemed outside those orders and, needing an interpreter, I went out into the village with them.
The pub was called the Lion d’Or and we’d a Golden Lion at home.
There was an old man inside and a woman, who was either his daughter, or daughter-in-law. All youngish men were in uniform of course. “Better see what we can get to drink,” were my instructions and on the shelves behind the bar, were rows of multi-coloured bottles. Not being an experienced drinker, most of the labels meant nothing to me but, on my enquiry I was told, amongst the few things I understood, that red wine was three francs and white five. I gave this information to the others and a franc then being close to a penny ha’penny, four pence ha’penny or seven pence ha’penny didn’t seem too bad a price. Beer in England was then about four or six pence a pint. We might as well start on the cheapest was the agreement. “Four red wines,” I said. To the general surprise, we received a bottle each! So there wasn’t any question of trying anything dearer just then.
The cooking, which took place under nine section’s loft, was by means of petrol blow lamps. Dixeys were stood on a metal frame set a few inches above the ground and a great spurt of flame from the blow lamp shot underneath to heat them. Bacon somehow appeared for breakfast, otherwise there was stew and tea, and sometimes not much difference in the taste of either.
Washing was outside in the cattle trough and a trench in the orchard was where the latrines were buried. A notice, much like a primitive cross, was placed on the filled-in trench, ‘LATRINE 30TH APRIL 1940’. Followed, doubtless, by others of later dates. I wondered later, when the Germans eventually got there, whether they pondered on the number of people of the same name who died at regular intervals!
Bathing was the biggest problem of all. The first invention comprised two Army hard tack biscuit tins. Each was about a foot square and maybe two foot high and very flimsy, so holes were easily punched in their bottoms. A stoutish piece of wire was bent and hooked on to the top of them to form a handle. The tins were suspended under a landing on an outside stairway, conveniently over a cattle trough and directly opposite and maybe 15 yards from the cookhouse door. The idea was that a naked bather should stand in the trough, whilst a friend dashed across the cow yard from the cook house with one bucket of very hot water and another of cold, skilfully pouring the water from bucket to biscuit tin, a gentle shower of freely-mixing hot and cold water would descend, whilst the chap below lathered and rinsed at a leisurely pace. In fact, as the water was transferred no matter how carefully, the biscuit tins swung and the bather, in a matter of seconds, was doused first with a bucket of cold water, followed by a bucket of very hot and a few sprinkles of tepid, from the little which had gone into the tins.
It was better to get in the trough and splash about.
In a further effort to keep us relatively un-smelly, the trucks took us to a not-too-distant, partially-demolished spa. The ‘Salle de Bain’, as I imagine it had at one time been called, was roughly circular with a coloured glass roof. Within the room was a railing about three feet high and maybe three feet all round within the walls. The nude bathers, soap in hand, stood inside the railing, searching the glass roof for places from which the water could come when, without warning, someone turned what resembled a fire hose on, it came from one spot and about shoulder high. Those nearest it were knocked flat, those just away from the main stream had a severe buffeting, whilst those furthest away received only a few ricochets. Then all the water went off, leaving some extremely well-washed and others with the first rubbings of soap still on them.
Adolf ordered the German attack before other arrangements could be tried.
The only duty for ‘A’ Company, who were detached from the Battalion, was to provide a guard for a nearby petrol dump. They often also provided fatigue parties to load and unload the stuff which was packed in wooden containers, each holding two flimsy cans of four gallons each, or would have done if those nailing the crates together hadn’t frequently punctured the tins.
Chalky was the nature of the ground and against a bank where the road cut through a hillock, a tarpaulin had been draped over some pieces of wood to form a shelter. On the hillock stood an air defence, erected bren on its tripod and maybe 100-150 yards further away on the top of a hill, stood an air sentry. His job was to recognise aircraft and give warning of any attack by the enemy and pretty useless he’d have been. The guard commander, which in my turn I was, found it a tedious business going every two hours up that hill. The sight of May Bugs devouring all the shrubs provided some relief from the boredom, but the view from the top was well worthwhile. Great stretches of the countryside could be seen, strips of multi-coloured fields, different greens and here and there, the greyish chalky colour of the fresh-ploughed soil and directly leading eastwards, a long straight poplar-bordered road. Sometimes I speculated, I’ll see the Germans coming down there one of these days.
As it turned out, I was guard commander when the blitz started. High-flying German planes were to be seen as the dawn came and for the first time, white puffs of anti-aircraft bursts appeared in the sky, but never very close. From the top of the hill, the sentry and I had an excellent view.
The guard changed at 8 o’clock, the new one being delivered by a small, square-fronted truck known as a P.U. and the old guard going back to billets on it. Part way back, there was a gesticulating steel-helmeted gendarme in the middle of the road and the driver gave me an enquiring look. “Yes, better stop,” I said.
The gendarme seemed pretty excited and kept waffling on about ‘parachutists’. We wanted our breakfasts, so I told him to get in the back and we took him to billets, where I directed him to the Company office.
The guard commander had to parade his guard, stand them at ease, report to the office that his guard were waiting for inspection then, when that was done, he withdrew ammunition and dismissed the guard, who then went for breakfast. He meantime, handed in the ammo and received the Q.M.’s signature, completed his guard report, handed that in and then went for his own breakfast.
When I went to the office with the guard report, the
greeted me. “Ah, good. Now corporal, take half a dozen men, draw ammunition and go look
here.” He pointed to a map, “Parachutists are reported to have landed.”
“Sir,” I ventured, “I was just going for my breakfast.”
“Don’t bother about that.” he said. So off I went, as bid.
I knew there weren’t any parachutists as I’d been on top of the
hill, but you don’t argue with the O.C. So we went as ordered and terrified a few stray
Frenchmen, getting back from the patrol at what we thought a strategic time, about half an hour
before the mid-day grub would be up. Not enough time to be spent on anything else that morning,
we agreed. Once more, I went to report, with the patrol waiting to have their ammo withdrawn,
be dismissed and have a smoke for a while. I was greeted with, “Ah, I’m glad
you’re back. The P.U. will take you here.” His finger jabbed a place where a
railway crossed a river. “You’ll put a guard on the bridge.”
“Sir,” I ventured weakly, “I’ve not had any breakfast yet.”
“It doesn’t matter about that,” he said.
The weather was hot. We found a smelly shed as guard post and all bar the two sentries, one on each end of the bridge, tried to find somewhere to stretch out.
The day wore on and the sentries changed, grumbling loudly that they’d missed mid-day food and nothing happened till early evening when I heard a whistle, the signal between sentry and me. In the distance, a figure trudged along the tracks towards the bridges. I was with the sentry before the walker arrived and arrested him, much to his surprise, saying, “What are you doing wandering along this railway?”
I was then surprised for he said, “I work on it.”
That only set me back for a while, for I said, “Oh yes? How am I supposed to know that?” Whereupon he pulled out an identification card headed S.N.C.F. which was what the French called their railways, with his photo on it and all sorts of stuff which probably was his description. So, looking as judicial as I could, I said, “You’d better clear off now, but don’t come back or hang about, because,” and pulling back a rifle bolt I showed him, “these things are loaded.” As he went, I thought he probably wouldn’t enjoy his supper very much but then, I’d not even had my breakfast.
We kept a longing lookout up the dusty road where the P.U. should appear to
pick us up and just before dusk, it did.
“I’m bloody glad to see you,” I said to the driver and he replied, “I don’t think you will be.”
“You’re to go to the petrol dump, the guard’s being doubled.”
“Have you brought any grub?”
The language of the squaddies was bad, even for one well-used to hearing it and, but for the fact that it was pointless and wasn’t done, mine would have added to it.
Jimmy Dowd was guard commander and since he’d only relieved me that morning, was very surprised to see me. I did ask, somewhat wistfully, if there was any grub about. But I knew before doing so, that it was a waste of time. In the Army, there never is. But I was luckier than the soldiers. They went to double up each sentry, whilst Jimmy told me to turn in.
Just after midnight, there was the sound of the arriving officer of the day and I thought it as well if I was actually upright, when he somewhat anxiously appeared.
Just as well, for he’d no sooner opened his mouth when a shot sounded. And in the still of the night, it sounded clearly, with the rattle echoing from the hill and along the valley.
If I’d been asked to bet, I’d have known who it was: JEFF!
“Challenged the so and so,” he said when questioned, “but whoever it was made off, so I fired.” Actually it was just about full moon, so anyone could have been seen a mile or more, but nothing was said and eight o’clock in the morning came and I knew I was orderly N.C.O. that day.