Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Comradeship in camp

I remember NCO language was often very extreme with plenty of F-words thrown in. I was familiar with the words but not as adjectives to describe everything and anything in general conversation! A limited vocabulary with constant swearing was a fact of life in the Armed Service.  The secret to survival was to mould into the environment and keep your head down even when the nature of the conversation was an eye-opener.

Comradeship was very important in dealing with the intense pressure of weeks of training.  Weaker ones were supported by stronger ones. We were all conscripts, none had chosen this way of life and therefore we supported each other. Friendships were forged with the most unlikely people. 

After the first six weeks confined to camp, we were allowed into town at weekends in ‘civvies’.  Pay day was Thursday and by Sunday, after cinema trips and drinking sessions, there was no money left. It was common practice to borrow money from mates and as I was not a big spender I was often a lender, though everyone always repaid their debts.  However if you repaid your debt on a Thursday there was nothing left for the weekend hence many a night was spent in the hut cleaning kit, playing cards, reading dirty books and listening to the radio. 

The BBC radio programmes were known as the Home Service (serious), Light Programmes (light music) and the Third Programme (very serious).  What I hadn’t bargained for was Radio Luxembourg, the first broadcasting station devoted to pop music and advertisements, long before the days of UK based commercial radio. I remember listening to Leslie Welch, the memory man, and Horace Batchelor, who advertised a method of predicting the results of football matches; his spelling out of Keynsham, made the town famous.

Every recruit soon learned to press his uniform. Each hut had an electric iron and you had to wait your turn to put strong, sharp creases into your battledress top and trousers. The best way was to use brown paper dowsed with water but it was very easy to singe the material, or worse, burn a hole in it.  In my case it was also dangerous.  While adjusting the brown paper with the left hand I lifted the iron in my right and because the handle was loose, it swung round and hit me on the wrist, giving me a nasty burn. I had it treated by the MO but a couple of weeks later, while doing rifle drill, I caught the scab and blood oozed down the butt of the rifle until I realised it had become very sticky. The drill sergeant noticed it and ordered me right across the square to report to the MO, marching of course.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

A posting to Elgin, Scotland.

After two long weeks we were ready for our new postings. One contingent was shipped off to Egypt, an important base for British Forces protecting our interests in the Suez Canal and the Middle East.  As for me, I had to wait another two weeks for a posting. Our group were not allowed to go outside the camp but with no more training we were instead given numerous jobs including catering, gardening and other ‘fatigues’.  It felt like being in an open prison for a fortnight.

However the next time round I knew my fate – No 8 Training Regiment at Elgin, North of Scotland. We had to pack all our belongings into the kit bag, not an easy task. I discovered later the chap in the next bed had thrown some of his gear into my bag by mistake and I was piling mine on top. He must have had to fork out replacements when he got to his destination. 

Dressed in best battle dress and armed with full kit and helmet, I was transported to the local railway station with a handful of other recruits to travel the 600 miles north, a trip with two connections and lasting several hours.

Elgin Camp was even more basic than Worcester with individual wooden huts and separate ablutions blocks. Approaching winter it was bitterly cold and windy due to the exposed North Sea coast.  It was supposed to have its compensations because it did not have a reputation for excessive ‘bull’ associated with some other military establishments.  As a centre for Field Engineering Elgin trained in harsher conditions, preparing soldiers for active service where conditions were likely to be severe.  The main function of the Royal Engineers was to prepare the way for advancing armies with roads and bridges and to clear up afterwards with bomb disposal, demolitions and general mobilisation support.  The Sappers were also expected to fight alongside the artillery and infantry as part of the mobile forces.

We were issued with 303mm rifles which added to the drill routines and maintenance of equipment.  The rifle had to be kept meticulously clean and well-oiled.  We were issued with a ‘pull-through’ and lubricating oil to keep the barrel and breach clean and free from rust, together with a bayonet kept in a sheath attached to our belts.  A Sapper also had a knife, similar to a Swiss Army knife, attached to a lanyard around the waist.  If any of these metal parts were rusty you would be put on a charge straight away.

I often recall a classic confrontation between an NCO and a recruit on parade when the recruit had mistakenly referred to his ‘gun’.  “Remember laddie, this is your rifle, this is your gun: this is for fighting and this is for fun” he shouted, pointing at the young lad’s privates on the words 'gun' and 'fun'.

The NCO then shouted to everyone , “A soldier’s best friend is his rifle” before turning to another man and quickly asking him, “Who’s your best friend?” The reply came back, “Me mother, Corporal”.