Warrior on the Home Front
“…We shall go on to the end.
We shall fight in France.
We shall fight on the seas and oceans.
We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air.
We shall defend our island,whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches.
We shall fight on the landing grounds.
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets.
We shall fight in the hills.
We shall never surrender.”
From a speech to the House of Commons by UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill MP on 4 June 1940.
As Lilian and Bernard O’Sullivan and other young Londoners were being evacuated, the first acts were taking place in humanity’s cruellest conflict.
On the morning of 1 September, the German army crossed the border into Poland on the pretext of responding to Polish attacks. The British government had a collective defence agreement with the Polish government. Its ambassador to Berlin handed a note to the German government that said if it did not announce its troops would withdraw from Poland by 11am on 3 September a state of war would exist between the two countries. The hours passed and it was obvious the ultimatum would be ignored. Ted, like tens of millions of others, remembered well the last minutes of peace. At 1115am, UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke to the British people by BBC radio. War had been declared.
“It was Sunday 3 September, 1939, and I was at the 1030am Mass, one of about 12 servers. After the Gospel, Father Kelly mounted the pulpit to give his usual long, inaudible but very interesting sermon, at least for those of us who could hear him. Slightly louder than usual, he read to us the announcement that Mr Chamberlain had made over the radio that morning. During the service, we had heard the wail of a siren but had thought it was a practice. He continued Mass, as usual and we left the church at just after half past 11. We were at war but it felt no different than the day before.”
“Hawkes was so busy during the next weeks that we were working to eight and nine o’clock in the evening. One Sunday morning, I served the 8am, 1030am and 12 o’clock Masses. I was in the sacristy putting on my cassock and cotta, when I heard marching and shouting outside. I looked out and saw a large party of soldiers paraded in front of the church. They were wearing strange hats with a bunch of green feathers above their badge. Officers wearing green hats and blue feathers stood in front of them. They were the London Irish Rifles who were stationed at Brixton. Returning to the sacristy, I was surprised when one of the officers wearing a Roman collar came in.‘Hallo Dickie,’ he said.‘Hallo Father,’ I replied. Father McKenna was a friend and an old boy of Beaulah Hill school whose parents were Corpus Christi parishioners.
I asked: ‘Are you in the London Irish?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you join us? You could be my Batman, a nice cushy number.’
‘No, thank you, Father. I am going to the signals as a Dispatch Rider.’At the end of Mass, Father McKenna shook my hand and wished me luck. I never saw him again.”
“On the first night of the war, I could swear that I could smell gas. We had been issued gas masks and were thoroughly frightened of being gassed as we slept. We also had an Anderson shelter (a basic unit comprising corrugated iron built over a dug-out) in the back garden. To our surprise, nothing happened. The main noticeable difference was to see guns and searchlights in the parks, on bridges and in open places. The nights, however, were dark and every chink of light was greeted by a shout from an air raid warden.”
“The club carried on as usual with dances on Sundays and club nights during the week. Members who had been Territorials were missing, but the others carried on as usual. Early in October, I received my official call-up letter. It was not for the signals but the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles. Despite the assurance of the former Director of Music of the Royal Horse Guards, I was not to be a dashing dispatch rider but a foot-slogging rifleman.”
“Tuesday 17 October was my last night as a civilian. I worked late as we were so busy. The other salesmen suggested packing up and going for a drink at the local pub. I excused myself after a couple of halves of light ale which was about my capacity. I walked to the bus stop and rode home. I had a small snack and walked to the club which was very crowded. All the committee were there. They were surprised that I had not arrived earlier and could not understand why I would work so late on my last night as a civilian. The club chairman Mr Madden called order and made a speech of thanks for my services. Miss Levey then presented me with a gold wrist watch engraved ‘Dickie, Corpus Christi Club’ with that day’s date. I was genuinely surprised. I had already handed over the accounts and funds to my cousin Frank, who was a couple of years younger. He continued running the club for about another year until he was called up into the RAF in which he served as an observer in Sunderland flying boats.”
“The next morning, I was up early. After a good breakfast, I dressed in a Harris tweed jacket, sports shirt with club tie and brown brogue shoes and set off to Liverpool Street station where I was to report to the Officer Commanding the London Irish Rifles. I carried a small attaché case with a few personal items, including my missal. I arrived well before the stated time.”
“Captain Gibbs, who was in charge of the reception party, was ready to receive me at his desk which was a blanket-covered table. He was very tall and correct but very pleasant, particularly as I meticulously addressed him as: ‘Sir.’
He questioned me about my background and my work. I told him I worked for Hawkes of Savile Row.
‘The Regimental Tailors!,’ he declared.
I had never seen Gibbs’ name on any order so I assumed that he, like so many others, could not afford our high prices.”
“Not all the 96 recruits were as eager as I to become a soldier. It was well into the afternoon before the final stragglers turned up. Meanwhile, we were given one shilling (5p) which we spent in the railway restaurant. When it was time to move off, we were assembled into three ranks and, to our surprise, marched to the tube station. Here, we were packed into an ordinary service train. We travelled on the District Line to Southfields south of the River Thames where we assembled into four platoons before marching off. We still had no idea of our destination. I had spent almost the whole of my first day in the army travelling from south-east London to south-west London via north-east London. We made our first route march, which was about two miles, to Barker’s sports ground on Church Road, Wimbledon.”
“We were directed into a large hall. The first platoon of 24 men was spaced out on the far side. My platoon was given the side where we had entered. A third platoon filed down the centre and the fourth one was positioned at the far end. There were no seats, so we were told to put our cases down and squat. Each platoon was commanded by a Sergeant assisted by a Corporal.”
“The Platoon Sergeant introduced himself. ‘My name is Wigger and these stripes indicate that I am a Sergeant. If I speak to you, you will stand to attention and say, ‘Yes, Sergeant.’ I am in charge of you and you are in my squad – Ypres squad. Do you understand?’
He gave the impression that we had been accorded a singular honour to be serving in his London Irish Rifles. He told us that Ypres was the name of a famous First World War battle. It was to be pronounced Eaper not Wypers. The other squads were Loos, Somme and Festubert, names of the Regiment’s Great War battle honours.”
“A squad at a time, we were marched to a store where we were issued two blankets and a paliasse (a mattress bag that was to be filled with straw), a D-shaped mess tin, a metal bowl, two metal plates, a knife, fork and spoon, a holdall, a small bag called a housewife containing needles and cotton and a shaving brush and razor. We were shown how to pile them neatly in our three feet of space and told that we would sleep there. I looked around at my comrades. They were of all sizes and dressed in a variety of clothing, some wearing overcoats, some suits, others working-type clothes. They certainly did not look like soldiers.”
“We were very hungry and were pleased to be called, again a squad at a time, for our first army meal which was not memorable except for its poor quality. Hot tea was poured into the metal bowl. By the time it was cool enough to touch with our lips, the tea it contained was too cold to drink and it was not very sweet. We were then called to carry our paliasses to a stack of bales of straw where we were to pack sufficient into the linen sack to make a comfortable bed. ‘Pack plenty in,’ said Wigger. ‘There’s no second helping.’ Those who did not suffered for the next two months. A sort of canteen was open where soap, toothpaste and confectionery could be bought.”
“It was by then early evening. Wigger told us there was nothing more to do and we could prepare our beds. Lights out would be 10pm after which there would be absolute silence. Reveille would be at 6am. I started to get to know my neighbours. On my left was a small, dark man named Vic Blake who had worked in the sample shoe shop in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. He told me a tale about his pregnant girl friend and I was not sorry when the chap the other side took his attention. On my right was Basil Creasy, son of an army officer. Next to him was Pip (Charles) Ward, a Dartford printer who I liked.”
“My eyes caught sight of a quartet opposite me by the side of the cookhouse door. The only characteristic they shared was that they were all about six feet tall. Barney Colquhoun, a roughly-spoken and dominant person, was a transport driver. Wearing a long, black, square-shouldered overcoat and a rakish black Homburg hat was a man named Shannon. Tommy Finn was slighter, soberly-dressed and spoke with a stammer. The fourth member of the group was a well built, quietly-dressed man with perfectly-groomed almost platinum-blonde hair who you could see would be the leader. He was Eddie Mayo. The four appeared to be already acquainted. They all came from Dagenham in east London where they worked in the Ford factory. Most recruits seemed to be east Londoners.”
“Whether by accident or design, the squads appeared to reflect the physical and other characteristics of their sergeants. Wigger of Ypres was quiet but authoritative and meticulously dressed. He wore his caubeen absolutely correctly with the badge over his right eye. Wigger was well-spoken and knowledgeable. All his squad, like him, were on the small side with just the odd taller one standing out such as Terry O’Keefe.”
“Somme had Sergeant Jigger. Tall and bespectacled, Jigger was educated and very dominant. He wore his caubeen with the badge and hackle straight up and inclining to the right ear. Everyone in his platoon appeared to be tall.”
“Sergeant Kavanagh, red haired and quite rough, was about medium height. He wore his caubeen pulled down on his head, well tucked in at the back. Consequently the badge and hackle lay flat on top of his head. He was noisier than the other Sergeants but seemed to lack confidence. His squad was Loos, named after the most famous London Irish battle honour. The final squad was Festubert. It was commanded by Sergeant Jack Allen, an actor who had been in the film ‘The Four Feathers’. I recognised him but didn’t have the courage to introduce myself. Despite his fame, he appeared to be completely anonymous. His squad appeared to share his quietness. He wore his caubeen with the hackle and badge leaning slightly forward and not pulled down. Of all the squads, his one was to be seldom heard. I cannot remember the name of a single member. Characters immediately appeared. In Loos, a red-haired man carried a large suitcase on our route march. He was Syd Nathan who had run a business, possibly off a barrow, in the East End. After we had settled down, the portmanteau was opened to display his wares: razor blades, writing pads and envelopes, sweets and chocolates and mysterious packets of three. He was simply continuing his work as a general trader. Close to him was Cohen, a barber who would soon start to make a fortune trying to cure the regimental hair-cuts. He was quickly appointed regimental barber, a position he held until his release in 1946. At least 10 of the recruits were Jews. These men of varying characters were to enrich the Regiment with their contrasting qualities.”
“Another character was French who spoke very little English. He had been working in a West End restaurant when he had been caught up in the draft. At inspection the next day, the officer demanded: ‘Name?’ ‘Macey,’ was his reply. Sergeant Wigger, roared: ‘Macey what?’ Nervously the lad replied: ‘Macey, George.’ He was of course expected to say: ‘Sir.’ It broke the ice. The officer roared with laughter, the Sergeant smiled and Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) Reid’s permanent frown lifted slightly. We were all human beings again. After all, we were still the same men dressed in our civvies trying to recover from our first 24 hours in the Army.”
“Notwithstanding the Sergeant’s warning, lights out on the first night was delayed to 1030pm. By that time, most had prepared for their first night’s sleep on our lumpy straw beds. Despite constant shouts of ‘Silence!’, talking and laughter continued well into the night. Reveille was marked by a bugle call at 6am. Even after a poor night’s sleep, I was glad to get out of bed. I joined the melee at ablutions, washed in cold water and shaved. It was no hardship as very few people had running hot water in their homes. Breakfast was served: lumpy porridge and a sausage with a couple of doorsteps (thick slices of bread and margarine). Inspection followed and names taken. ‘Unshaven. Stand closer to your razor. Filthy ears,’ were the remarks made by the inspecting officer. A squad at a time, we were marched to the stores and given an assortment of webbing: packs, haversacks, belts and straps. We carried our bundles back to our places.”
“Sergeant Wigger stood in front of us with a webbing belt and pack: ‘This is your equipment. It is called 08 pattern, because it was first designed in 1908. I will show you how to fit it together. Copy me.’ We put it over our civvies. The NCOs adjusted it.”
“We then went back to the stores where the Armourer Sergeant gave each of us a rifle covered in thick grease and a pull-through rope and rags for cleaning the inside of the rifle’s barrel. We sat down and were told to clean off the grease. At the same time, Wigger told us that we were Riflemen and we had just been issued with our best friend: the ‘303 short Lee Enfield rifle’ and bayonet. It was never to leave our side and was to be cleaned and cherished at all times. The exteriors were examined meticulously. We were told how to pull the cloth from the breech to the muzzle using the pull-through. The NCOs were soon peering down the barrels of the rifles.”
“We were told that we would never carry our rifles at the slope on our shoulders, like lesser mortals in other parts of the British Army. The Corporal demonstrated the two ways Riflemen held their weapons. The shoulder entailed holding the rifle vertically by the right side. This involved supporting the weapon by the trigger guard. That was painful. The second position was the trail. It involved holding the rifle horizontally at its point of balance. That was almost impossible. The next order was issued. ‘We will form up and march next door to get used to carrying our rifles at the trail.’ Next door was the All England Tennis Club, the headquarters of world tennis. We set off, almost in step, with the occasional dropped rifle. The entrance to the club was the next driveway. On the firm concrete surface, we were given our first foot and arms drill lessons. It was here that I regretted wearing my highly polished brown brogues. I started to hack a hole just below my right ankle in my endeavour to snap to attention. This would not heal until we were issued boots.”
“At the end of the week, we paraded at the stores to be confronted by a line of soldiers presided over by a thick-set man wearing a green caubeen. We were the last squad to be dealt with. Each man was issued with ‘Long John’ underclothes, shirts, two pairs of grey socks, a cap comforter and brown woollen overalls called battledress. We were asked our height and chest size.A blouse and trousers were thrown on the counter. My battledress jacket and trousers were marked with a large figure 9.
‘Excuse me,’ I said politely.
‘Corporal!,’ yelled the man.
‘Excuse me corporal, but this suit is the wrong size.’
‘Trouble?,’ asked the Warrant Officer.
‘This is too large, Sir.,’ I replied.
‘Smallest we’ve got,’ the officer said. ‘Next.’
I found out later that this was Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant (RQMS) Wallie James, the second most senior Warrant Office below RSM Reid.”
“Next we were issued with puttees and a ‘fore and aft’ cap. There were two sizes only: Too small and too large. Then came the caubeens. Our next stop was at a great array of boots.
‘Size?,’ Shouted the Sergeant.
‘Six, Sergeant.,’ I replied. A pair of large unpolished boots were thrust at me.
‘Excuse me Sergeant, these are the wrong size. I take size 6,’ I said.
‘Best we can do.’‘Trouble?,’ shouted the RQMS. ‘What you again?’
‘These boots are too large, Sir.’
‘Take them, you are lucky to have them. What’s your name?’
‘Rifleman O’Sullivan, Sir.,’ I replied.
‘I will remember that!,’
“We went back to our places where we dressed in our uniforms. I was 5 feet 5 inches tall, with about a 35-inch chest. My uniform was for a man at of least 5 feet 9 inches with a 40-inch chest. My puttees held up my trousers which were supported by braces made as short as they would go. The blouse was enormous. The webbing belt acted as a corset. My forage cap was supported by my ears.”
“We were shown how to clean our boots and equipment using materials we were forced to buy. Next morning, we marched to Putney Heath to church. This was a long and painful march as my feet floated about in my huge boots. The Mass was celebrated by the battalion Catholic padre. I will always remember on the march watching the highly polished boots of Sergeant Dickie Bird. He was a former Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) regular, a cockney and a gentleman who became a true friend. We met members of the other companies. The 2nd Battalion of the London Irish comprised four fighting companies, each made up of four platoons, plus support personnel. Each company numbered just over 100 men. The four Companies were named E, F, G and H. The Headquarters (HQ) Company completed the battalion.”
“Each company was unique. E Company included a great number of Irish and London based Irishmen. Many had served in the Irish Army. Some said that they had been rebels in the 1919-21 independence war. F Company catered for West End actors and the staff of theatres. They often acted a part. When digging air raid trenches on Putney Heath, they tied rope round their calves, turned their caubeens around and wore them like cloth caps in imitation of a building labourer. As they worked, their language became more lurid. Among their ranks were names already known in their profession. In addition to Jack Allen, there were some lesser-known actors including William Edward Hodge and Nigel Stock, who became a post-war film and television personality.”
“Some recruits were residents or worked in the locality. They included employees of Chelsea Borough Council. These gravitated to G Company, where the CSM, a Platoon Sergeant Major and several NCOs had all worked for the council. Some claimed they were crew of the same dust-cart.”
“The most famous Church of England teachers’ training college in London was St Mark’s and St John’s, known as Marjons. Before the war began, its principal contacted the London Irish and marched the whole college along King’s Road to the Duke of York’s Barracks where the Regiment had its Headquarters. Here, they had special drills to fit in with their studies. They became H Company and were commanded by Captain Fritz Lane, an ex-Guard and a stern disciplinarian who had won an MC and other medals in the First World War. By enlisting in the Territorial Army, the Marjons’ students avoided the six months of service demanded by the ‘Military Training Act’. This allowed the majority of H Company to qualify as teachers before they went off to summer camp in 1939. Because it had so many educated men, the London Irish became an officer-producing regiment. Its ranks included titled persons and wealthy businessmen.”
“HQ Company comprised specialist platoons. Many of them had been transferred from the 1st Battalion, as had most of the 2nd Battalion’s NCOs and Officers. They included Pioneers, Mortar-specialists, Drivers of the troop carrying vehicles (TCVs), Signals, Transport and Anti-tank Platoons. HQ Company also had the Intelligence Officer, the Regimental Quartermaster, the Armourers, the Pipe Band, the Buglers and the Drummers, the Battle Patrol and the Battalion Headquarters (BHQ). At full strength, HQ Company numbered about 400 men. It would be divided later into two: HQ Company and Support (S) Company.”
“After church parade and lunch on 22 October, we were told that the rest of the day was for ‘interior economy’. This was free time for cleaning kit and polishing boots.
‘Will we be allowed out?,’ we asked.
‘Not until you look something like soldiers,’ was the reply.
It was approaching mid-afternoon when the Corporal in charge of the picket asked for me by name. He said that my father was at the gate with a parcel. I went to see him. Dad asked me how I was getting along. I was very abrupt, as I did not want people to think I was a mummy’s boy. Dad asked me what the food was like. I told him it was bad but we were all in the same boat.
He then said: ‘Your mother cooked this little fruit cake especially for you.’
I said: ‘I can’t take that. What will the other chaps think?’
Corporal Grandison saw my father leave dispiritedly and asked me what was wrong. I told him about the cake.
‘You sent back a home-made cake! You must be mad. You could have given it to me. Don’t for Lord’s sake tell your mates. They’ll murder you.’ When I told my group, they were not at all pleased.”
“We paraded the next morning for the first time as soldiers dressed in our new uniforms. On the smooth road surface outside Wimbledon and on the level concrete paths surrounding the tennis courts, we were put through our rifle drill. We marched confidently until we were given the order to about-turn. At that point, nearly all the field service caps flew into the air. At the end of each stretch of marching came the order: ‘Pick up caps.’ For many, the exercise on the parade ground and the physical education (PE) was the first they had since school. Supervised by Corporals David Peel and Grandison, actors from F Company and gentlemen who treated us well, we got very fit.”
“At last, we were given an evening pass from 5pm until 11pm. Most could only go as far as Wimbledon but I was able to get home by tube and bus. I remember arriving to be greeted at the door by my mother. She did not know whether to laugh or cry. I was kitted out in an over-large battle dress held together by a webbing belt, which was almost hidden by the fold of the blouse, and a side cap which threatened to fall off my head. The last time she had seen me, I had been wearing a well-cut Harris tweed jacket and flannels. In the wardrobe hung two hand-made Savile Row suits. I apologised about the cake. She clearly understood that I was endeavouring to stand on my own feet and did not want to appear any different from my new mates. About this time, my family moved to 31 Arodene Road, a large house with six rooms, a kitchen, a scullery and a bathroom. It was still rented but there were four earners in the family: my father, Danny, Nellie and Tom. I was in the army and no charge on the family.”
“Our first pay-day arrived. We were summoned in alphabetical order to the pay table. Here, we were to receive our money. The first one was called. ‘701597x Rifleman Adams. Seven shillings stoppages. Seven shillings pay.’
‘What stoppages?,’ said Adams.
‘Sir,’ prompted the Colour Sergeant.
He turned to the Officer Commanding (OC) Captain Gibbs. ‘Barrack damages, Sir.’
‘What barracks, Sir?’ asked Adams.
‘Quiet!’ roared the sergeant major.
‘Rifleman Allinson,’ shouted the Colour Sergeant, completely unperturbed and turning to the next victim.”
“We were to be systematically robbed of seven shillings (35p) each week for the whole training period and beyond. The damages were alleged to have been caused to requisitioned buildings we occupied. In fact, the system of pay and mess rolls was so complicated that practically the whole British Army was at odds with the Army Paymaster. (The basic pay for a private was 3 shillings a day but there were more than 200 differential wage rates in the British armed forces). The damages were a way the battalion balanced its books.”
“Late in the second week, Sergeant Wigger announced that there would be a company concert.
‘It will be given by you.’
He moved along the ranks of his squad and said in turn:
‘Rifleman, you will sing.’ To the next he might suggest a recital or dance. ‘Rifleman O’Sullivan, you will sing and dance.’
I said: ‘I can’t dance, Sergeant.’‘Good!,’ He said. ‘You will sing!’
The following Saturday, in front of the whole company, our officers and others, I sang the only song that I really knew. It was the ‘Rose of Tralee’, taught to me by my mother. I was assisted by a backing group who contrived to hum in harmony. I received thunderous applause.
On the bill with me were some professionals from F Company including Hodge, Peel and Stock, who impersonated Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh in the film Mutiny on the Bounty. He improvised and declared: ‘An Officer is an Officer, a Sergeant is a Sergeant; a Corporal is a Corporal but the lowest form of animal life in the British Army is a b*****d conscript.’ This did not go down well with the men. They had been conscripted into the army, but many Territorials had joined to avoid the call up, as, indeed, the actors in F and trainee teachers in H Companies had done. A result of my singing came a few days later when I offended someone by my strict adherence to orders. He called me: ‘Bloody Rosie.’ The name spread throughout the battalion and then the brigade. It stuck until I was to become a civilian again almost seven years later.”
“My greatest joy was the Pipes and Drums Band. The bagpipes were under the command of Pipe Major Archibald (Archie) Evans. He had a Welsh surname, a Scottish Christian name and spoke with an accent that he thought was Scottish. He had been the Pipe Major of a battalion of the RUR but he was born of English parents. He looked extremely fierce in his green doublet worn above a saffron kilt and green socks with the whole covered by his green cloak. His headdress was a green caubeen with a St Patrick’s blue hackle above the London Irish badge, in my opinion, the most beautiful in the British Army. The Bugle Major commanded the Drummers, who were also Buglers when required. He wore a highly polished (or patent leather) cross belt that bore the Regimental Battle Honours and a whistle in silver. The Bugle Major carried a silver-headed walking stick which acted as a mace. We were not to see the dress uniform of the band again until after the war. I loved pipe music, particularly Irish war pipes.”
“Our quarters were only adequate for sleeping and eating. Our training, for the main part, was in the All England Club. I can truthfully say that I learned to fire and aim a rifle on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. We learned to use a bayonet. In rifle regiments, there is no drill for fixing bayonets. That is probably because the Rifleman was a soldier trained to act alone, originally in the American colonies, so they seldom fought as a regiment. I was given the task, with a couple of others, to set up the dummies for bayonet practice under the direction of 2nd Lieutenant Savage, a charming man who treated us with much more respect than the NCOs. I hated the thought of using a bayonet on a fellow human being and I thank God that I never had to. Training in Wimbledon lasted eight weeks. Around the middle of December, we were posted to our companies. Before this happened, the champion recruit was selected. It was no surprise to anyone that Eddie Mayo was unanimously chosen.”
“Ward, Creasy and O’Keefe were all posted with me to G Company, which was commanded by Captain Gibbs, and placed in 15 Platoon. We were stationed in an old house, which had been requisitioned. Our beds were the floors. There was no hot water. Our task was to guard, together with 13 and 14 platoons, the Records’ Office and the Maintenance Unit of the RAF. These two very large establishments were across the road from our billet and separated from each other by the District railway. We mounted guard every other day on the Maintenance Unit.”
“We saw how the other half lived. The majority were clerks and mechanics, yet few were apparently below the rank of Leading Aircraftsman and NCOs abounded. They lived in spacious quarters with beds, sprung mattresses, sheets and pillowcases and individual lockers. Our comforts were confined to two blankets and a palliase. Most of us were still without greatcoats. I was paid a measly allowance for wearing my grey, Melton double-breasted overcoat, over which I buckled my webbing. It was completely ruined and I dumped it when a greatcoat was finally issued. The greatest difference was in the well-appointed Mess Hall. We ate at the Records’ Office mess. Food was served immediately we arrived. Tea was unlimited. There were four meals daily including supper. When on guard, a supper meal we paid for was to us Cordon Bleu. Barrack damages continued at seven shillings a week. I concluded that the Army was the poor relation when provision for the armed forces was made.”
“On my very first guard duty at the Maintenance Unit, a Sergeant was Guard Commander.
After inspecting us, he said: ‘Any person with a watch?’
Innocently, I said: ‘I have, Sergeant.’
He replied: ‘Let me borrow it for this guard.’
I took off my gold presentation watch and handed it to him.
Strapping it on his wrist, he remarked: ‘Nice little watch.’ At the end of our 24-hour duty, I expected it to be returned, but he retained it for over a week. In the end, I summoned up enough courage to ask for it back, at which point he took it off and handed it back to me, but with no word of thanks.
I had a 48 hour pass that weekend, so I left my watch at home, where it remained for a year or more. The Corporals and Sergeants were, generally, not very pleasant. They often took advantage of the genuine fear that the young soldiers had of them. Soon, they would be replaced or transferred.”
“Guard duty was unpleasant but being on patrolling picket was much worse. One was alone, whereas sentries were in pairs. Armed with a pick-handle, the picket patrolled the perimeter of the unit and in a two-hour duty would only have time for a couple of circuits. When a blizzard came, I patrolled in deep snow which drifted in places to a depth of about two feet or more. We had only our civilian overcoats. As a result of our privations on guard and in the sub-standard billets, we were vulnerable to influenza. As with many other soldiers, I was taken into the station hospital where I was kept for about three days. At the end of this, the billet was so overcrowded that I was sent home on sick leave of 72 hours.”
“An amusing incident occurred while I was on guard. I was the mobile picket and, at about 3am, I discovered a couple of bent railings at the side of the railway which formed a gap large enough for a man to get through. I immediately blew my whistle. A fighting picket of about six men led by Corporal Gerry Teague ran to me. He asked breathlessly what the trouble was. I pointed to the fence. He laughed and suggested it must have been like it for years. The whole company had stood to. The incident was not referred to, but I think that G Company Commander Captain Gibbs was pleased at the reaction to the alarm and my powers of observation.”
“At the end of February 1940, the regiment moved to St Alban’s and into more comfortable billets though we still had floorboards as beds. We stayed in a large detached house towards the outskirts of the city and on the road to London Colney, near St Mimms. I nicknamed our new Platoon Leader Sergeant Brown as ‘Tapper’ because he would quite unashamedly tap us for a loan half way through the week. We were a battalion in the same brigade with two Royal Fusilier territorial battalions as part of the 47th London Division. Training consisted of lots of route marching. On these, we were encouraged to sing as we marched along the country roads. Corporal Belding, a very large NCO with red hair, led the singing of often ribald parodies of popular songs, much to my disgust and that of any passing pedestrian. A favourite was McNamara’s band, which was directed at the commander of 15 Platoon, Captain Hennessy. He used to join in with gusto and secretly enjoyed his nickname ‘Tootle Hennessy’ from the verse: ‘Hennessy, Hennessy. Tootle your flute’.”
“We were then packed off to Purfleet Marshes to fire our rifles at targets and have our weapons zeroed-in. Over about three days, we trudged daily to the windswept, open marshes to fire, if we were lucky, about a clip of five rounds. I developed a raging toothache. We were allowed out in the evening, so I went to the nearest dentist to have it removed. He protested violently as I possessed a full set. I demanded removal because the suffering was unbearable. Reluctantly, he removed the offending item. I continued to suffer for a week with neuralgia.”
“St. Alban’s was a very pleasant city and we enjoyed our stay. One evening, Sergeant Tapper Brown came to our room where Bas Creasy, Pip Ward and I were buffing up our boots.
‘Good,’ said the Sergeant. ‘The right number and the right chaps. Get your kits together in 30 minutes, as a truck will be collecting you.’
‘Why Sarge,’ we chorused.‘You have volunteered for the RPs.’
‘What’s RPs?,’ we asked.
‘The Regimental Police,’ he replied.”
“We were above normal intelligence but sub-standard physically. Bas was decidedly corpulent and, despite army food, had managed to put on weight. He could be described as lethargic. Less polite persons would consider him to be bone idle or even bloody lazy. Pip, on the other hand, was a vital person, but not a policeman. I was keen but, in my overlarge battle dress, was the antithesis of a smart policeman. We reported to the Provost Sergeant who was responsible for the Regimental Police. Sergeant Floyd was a kindly, very smart man in his late thirties. He obviously was not too impressed by his latest volunteers. He issued us with green armbands upon which were the letters RP. Our station was the Battalion Quartermaster’s Stores.”
“Next morning, immediately after breakfast, Sergeant Floyd inspected us and detailed our duties. I was paired with a very tall, smart, Lance-Corporal and our task was to patrol the main roads in the centre of the city. We strolled in a policeman-like manner, calling into various establishments like Battalion HQ. At one point, our attention was drawn to the Pipe Band which was leading HQ Company on a route march. I was thrilled and stood with my hands behind my back, admiring the military phalanx as it passed.
Suddenly, there was a roar:
‘That RP there. Stand to attention as we pass!’ I sheepishly drew my feet together.”
“A Sergeant came dashing out, shouting: ‘You are under close arrest for failing to stand to attention when an armed party passes. Fall in at the rear of the company!’
I was compelled to march behind the company until we reached their first 50-minute halt. Captain John Lofting sent for me and asked for an explanation. I told him that I was so impressed by the music and the solemnity of the occasion that I had forgotten to bring my feet together. I added that I intended no insult to his company.
‘You can rejoin your comrade. I think you have learnt your lesson. Fall out!’
I saluted and started marching the two and a half miles back to St Alban’s.
As a probationary RP, I had few privileges, no stripes and only the authority of the armband as protection. RPs were always on duty patrolling the city until midnight. A bonus, however, was to be able to have a 30-minute break in the canteen run by the good ladies of the city. Here we were regaled with a mighty fry-up of egg and bacon, the like of which I have never tasted since. The charge was about sixpence (2.5p). Each night, we mounted a picket over the stores and patrolled alone for two hour stints. I remember watching, with infinite pleasure, dawn breaking and hearing in the crystal late-April air the preliminary warblings of the birds. This gradually developed into a completely deafening chorus of such beauty that it assailed every sense with its splendour. During my short military career up to that point, I had been on many guard duties at dawn, but such experiences had never before been manifest.”
The period of Ted’s basic training and early assignments encompassed the first nine months of the conflict. This period was called the ‘Phoney War’ because there was no fighting involving Britain and its allies. France’s Maginot Line was considered to be strong enough to deter any German attack in the form of the assault that began the First World War 25 years earlier.
The Phoney War came to an end on 9 April 1940 when Hitler ordered the invasion of Denmark and Norway, which was swiftly completed. A British expeditionary force to Norway was quickly withdrawn. Parliament lost patience with Neville Chamberlain and he resigned as prime minister on 10 May. Chamberlain was replaced by Winston Churchill, who had been in the cabinet as 1st Lord of the Admiralty since September 1939. Later that day, the Germans began to invade Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, all neutral states, as part of a campaign to defeat France and win the war in the West. The British Army in the UK was mobilised.
“We were immediately put on alert and moved by a curious variety of vehicles to Sandy in Bedfordshire. Our convoy included superannuated buses and pantechnicons. We disembussed in a wooded glade where I immediately proceeded to relieve myself behind a tree.
I was interrupted by a roar: ‘Put that man under arrest!’ It was the Medical Officer accompanied by the Provost Sergeant. Brought before the Company Commander, I was admonished and returned to duty. Practically the whole regiment had emulated me, but I had broken the 11th Commandment: never get caught. The Sergeant, with relief, returned his temporary RPs to their company. Was it a record? I had been placed under close arrest on my first and last days as an upholder of regimental law.”
“Nothing happened for a couple of days except our rifles were exchanged. Evidently, they were meant to be for drill purposes only. We were issued with P14 and Ross rifles, which came from stocks held in Canada since the First World War. They were so thick around the point of balance that my small hands had difficulty grasping one. Rumour was lurid and rife. But there was one common thread. The British Army in France and Belgium was having a hard time. We were moved to the coast to join our division and to guard the English coastline at Lowestoft in Suffolk. We debussed at a deserted flat area and erected bell tents. Towards evening, we were marched in full battle array to the beach where we were fenced in by coils of wire. Captain Gibbs told us that we had to dig slit trenches. We were reassured that, if an invasion occurred from the sea, we only had to hold on for 10 minutes or so because six-inch naval guns were ranged upon our position.
‘What about us?,’ asked an NCO.
‘Oh! Just take cover in your slit trenches,’ was the reply.”
“We had been supplied with empty bottles, pieces of rag and large cans of petrol and were let into the secret of how to manufacture Molotov cocktails, an anti-tank weapon used by the Republicans in the Spanish civil war. No one reminded our trainer that the Republicans lost.”
“Standing-to all night in full battle order was followed at full daylight by building work. There was a small, antiquated concrete mixing machine close by. This was started up and we used sand and gravel mixed with bags of Portland cement to make our first dragon’s tooth anti-tank barriers. We were then marched back to camp for breakfast. But instead of a rest after the labours of the night and morning, we were trained. This included our itinerary of drill, marching and weapon training. That evening, we were not marched to the beach but dressed in full battle order and rested in our tents. We lay on our haversacks with mess tins pressing into our backs and our respirators on our chests restricting our breathing. At dusk and dawn, we on our feet and looking for the invaders.”
“At dusk, I was posted in the thickening gloom on guard away from my fellows. I heard what I thought was the word: ‘Gas!’. My greatest fear had come to pass: a gas attack. Following well-taught rules, I held my breath and covered my face with the mask. Standing there with bayonet fixed, I was confronted by a massive figure, obviously proof against gas, as he was not wearing a gas mask.
‘Halt!,’ I commanded in a much muffled voice. ‘Who goes there?’
A clear voice said: ‘Take that bloody thing off so I can hear you.’ It was Captain Gibbs. He asked me why I had put on my respirator. I told him that I thought I heard that terrifying word. Once again, I was not condemned but applauded for being alert.”
“A few days later, there was an invasion; not by bloodthirsty Germans but gangs of navvies with a massive machine which they proceeded to erect on a kind of stage. Wooden buildings appeared with notices on them. One read ‘Advances’. We, grossly underpaid and overworked on a maximum of two bob a day, were to see men who had not yet done a stroke of work lining up for fists full of money.”
“It would be some days before a block-house and more dragon’s teeth would enrich the landscape of that seaside resort. We were receiving more authentic news which was backed up by the appearance of small craft with men in blue navy uniforms and peaked caps. They were some of those who had played such a crucial part in the evacuation of more than 300,000 British Expeditionary Force and other Allied troops from Dunkirk over 10 days ending 4 June 1940. We also heard how the Queen Victoria’s Rifles (QVR) had been liquidated at Calais. Originally, our battalion had been selected to go to Calais with the other two rifle regiments in the 47th Division, but the QVR had claimed the honour. They had paid a terrible price.”
The news from France got worse. On 14 June, Paris was abandoned. On 22 June, the French government signed an armistice treaty at Compiegne in the same railway carriage used when Germany surrendered nearly 21 years before. Hitler was filmed almost dancing with joy at his triumph. France was out of the war. Italy had declared war on 10 June when it was clear that Germany was winning. Britain stood on its own.
At this critical juncture, some argued that Britain should itself sue for peace rather than continue with a war it could not possibly win. The defeatists were not all closet Nazi sympathisers. They included realists who believed continuing with the war would lead to national bankruptcy. At best, Britain and Germany would be fatally weakened to the advantage of the Soviet Union. Churchill rejected the peace option and called for total war. After rallying his wavering cabinet, he delivered some of the most powerful speeches ever heard in the House of Commons. ‘We shall fight on the beaches…We shall never surrender,’ he declared in a speech on 4 June, the day the last British troops were taken from Dunkirk. Some thought his rhetoric was misplaced. The majority, however, rallied. It had become a People’s War. More mundane matters, however, were preoccupying Rifleman O’Sullivan.
“It was at Lowestoft that I got my first promotion and was given the longest title in the British Army: Local Acting Unpaid Lance-Corporal. Also honoured were Pip Ward, Terry O’Keefe and six others. I was immediately rebuked for being improperly dressed and was compelled to purchase from my ‘unpay’ four pairs of black and green chevrons. For many hours, I squatted sewing them on my various uniforms. These had been augmented by a pre-war, other-ranks tunic and a pair of knee crackers, very tight trousers, the bottoms of which were folded over long puttees. This was a walking-out dress that took hours to adjust correctly. I had, of course, also been compelled to buy a set of regimental black buttons to go with my new uniform.”
“The invasion crisis ended and our division became a mobile reserve. Even greener troops took our place on the coast. We were moved in our fleet of assorted vehicles to the grounds of Eaton Hall, the Duke of Westminster’s palatial home near Knutsford in Cheshire. An army camp had been built using lines of camouflaged bell tents. There was no flooring and about a dozen men had to sleep in each tent with their feet towards the centre pole. After a few days, it appeared that the tent walls were moving. It immediately transpired that we were infested with lice. The previous occupants had been evacuees from Europe who had left us a legacy.”
“Company by company, we were to be disinfested. E Company was first. F Company followed. The treatment involved putting all clothing and equipment in an apparatus which baked the animals. Unfortunately, every crease was baked into the uniforms as well. Those creases were completely irremovable, remaining until the next uniform exchange. It was also rumoured that the lice were cooked but still alive. The Regiment’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sir William Randle Starkey, was incensed. He made representations for the process to change by the time it was G Company’s turn. On the day, we were ordered to strip naked and to wrap all our belongings carefully inside a clean blanket. These bundles were put across a hedge into a field near to which were parked vehicles with massive pipes playing into their interiors. The clothes and equipment were put into the machinery and gas was pumped in. Meanwhile, the Orderly Sergeant, Corporal Belding, called on parade about 100 stark-naked men who were formed up in their platoons wearing boots and steel helmets only. Belding was more dressed than we: he wore a webbing belt and bayonet as well. Calling us to attention, he reported to G Company Second-in-Command Captain Bartlett, who was dressed. He solemnly returned his salute and proceeded to inspect the company, occasionally adjusting the angle of the men’s helmets. Bartlett had a record as an eccentric. He had allegedly compelled his former company to clear snow from the front of their billet in St Alban’s, even from the grass with their hands, in preparation for inspection by the Commanding Officer.”
“We proceeded, by platoon, to a gap in the hedge leading to the clean field. Here, each one was examined by an MO and our feet and boots were dipped in disinfectant, as were our helmets. Our bodies were sprayed by an Orderly. Fortunately it was a beautiful sunny day, so it was no hardship to do nothing but lay on the grass and talk. Finally, it was decided that our visitors were dead. We collected our kits and after examining them for damage were happy to get dressed and pack the remainder away. We were marched to a new camp in another part of the estate. Our former home was burnt.”
“After about a month in Knutsford, we were moved suddenly to another great estate near Birmingham. We remained there for just a few days and then entrained again for Pembroke, ‘Little England Beyond Wales’ as it was then known. The suddenness of the move seemed to confirm that the Army was unsure of what it was doing. We were transported on a single-track line which ran through central England and into Wales. The stations we passed through had their identities removed. Arriving in the darkness of early morning, our company was marched to a group of empty shops in the main street of an old town. We were to occupy the semi-ruined top floors. When daylight came, the mystery had not been solved as we were confined to barracks to give us time to settle in. Mealtime arrived and we were marched to the market hall in the centre of this old town. Here, we learnt its name for the first time: Haverfordwest.”
“About this time, we received a pay rise. Proficiency pay was to be awarded and my magnificent salary was raised to three shillings and three pence (about 16p) a day less stoppages. There was nothing yet for my Lance-Corporal’s stripe. The 2nd Battalion was still part of a mobile reserve formation. We had been selected to do intensive company and battalion training. Colonel Starkey was an eccentric, as the way he wore his caubeen illustrated. His hackle hung forward and appeared to point and you had to be prepared to answer immediately any question asked. ‘What would you do if a German parachutist, landed here?’ was an example of the question he put. He praised and promoted a sentry who marched him with his hands upraised to the Guard Commander. ‘I did not recognise you in the dark, Sir!’, he claimed. A man before his time, Starkey’s methods were to capture the attention of London daily newspapers. Our stay at Haverfordwest started with drill, spit and polish and guard duty. The RSM now was our old friend Buff Reid. Each of the four companies was encouraged to compete with each other by sending two representatives as HQ Guard which comprised a commander — a Corporal — and six men. A Stick Orderly was selected from the eight to wait upon the Commanding Officer as his Orderly for the day which gave him the privilege of carrying a swagger stick.”
“I managed to avoid being a member of the guard, but my size seven boots and my bayonet appeared on parade most days. They had been adjudged by no less an expert than G Company CSM Danny Long as the best in our company. Feet were squeezed into my boots almost daily to be returned to the company office as soon as the orderly had been chosen. My boots were spotless because they had seldom been worn. I had been issued with a second pair of the right size.”
“One thing had not changed. Few people could understand any command given by RSM Reid. I saw men charged with inattention because they failed to respond to his incomprehensible commands. This was completely unfair since it could lead to the soldier being a marked man. Competition between companies for the privilege of being stick orderly was fierce. It became difficult to choose between the men on parade. Extreme measures were used to make the decision. Boots were removed to see if socks were correctly darned and that the soles of boots were highly polished. Rifleman Nugent, who was so poor when doing basic training at the Barker’s ground, never did a guard as he was always chosen to be the orderly because he was so smart.”
“H Company Commander Captain Lane recognised the difficulty with Reid when he was preparing a programme of battalion drill. He chose Sergeant Majors Billy Allen and Danny Long to take over the task. Both were ultra-smart men and it was almost always a pleasure to be on battalion parades with them in charge. Billy, an RUR rifleman but English, was the son of the RUR Bandsmaster. Danny, an Irishman, claimed he had been a boy messenger for the rebels during the Irish wars. After the drill came the intensive training. One day, Danny called me to the company office. He showed me the duty roster and other books and asked me if I could improve them. Captain Gibbs bought new books, billed as cleaning materials, and I painstakingly rewrote his duty roster in my best handwriting and script. He showed my work to the company commander with pride. Not literate himself, Danny loved literacy in others.”
“While I was given this extra task, normal training continued unabated. A competition was arranged between the nine sections in G Company in map-reading and leadership, something which is now termed orienteering. I was given responsibility for eight men, two of them really unfit. With the help of Rifleman Andy Gardiner, and using the skill learned in Lambeth Scouts, I guided this mixed band to victory by a wide margin. As a result, I was praised by Captain Gibbs when he presented the first prize. A few days later, the battalion asked for a nominee from each company to become a map-reading Instructor. My name was forwarded and I found myself in the company mainly of Sergeants. After a period teaching the skills of reading maps, I returned to G Company. I was confronted by an enraged Danny who was almost speechless with anger about the state of the company’s books. ‘Look at this, after only a few weeks.’ Illiteracy was common among NCOs and my work of art was ruined. Danny asked me if I would start yet another. He did this so humbly, I was almost embarrassed.”
“Company training followed. We were bussed to Newgale Sands for a fortnight’s intensive battle preparation. This involved forced marches and long runs that culminated in nude bathing in the cold sea, watched appreciatively from a distance by local ladies. Route marches with full packs, stalking and crawling and field-firing using live ammunition were among the pleasures we endured under Captain Geoffrey Phillips, our temporary Company Commander. On the final Friday evening, he treated the whole company in the local hostelry as a mark of his appreciation for our efforts.”
“There were occasional moments of ill-discipline. Rifleman Waddy Weir, worse for drink, attempted on three occasions to swim home to his wife in Ireland. After pulling him out of the shallow sea twice, I said on his third attempt: ‘Drown then.’ He did not, as the next day he was once more asking to borrow ‘fippence’ for a drink. We returned to Haverfordwest feeling more like soldiers, tough and prepared for anything.”
“The old mess and payroll system of company accounting had been replaced by a simple system of accounts but even this would prove too complicated for the Company Quartermaster Sergeants, in particular ‘Twinkletoes’ Bevan who had promoted from Corporal to Colour Sergeant. A solicitor by profession, Bevan was completely unsuited for dealing with the intricacies of the Quartermaster account. A very big puzzle was the vexing problem of the men’s pay. There appeared to be no reason why some soldiers were always in debt. Captain Gibbs, now back in command of G Company, asked me about my experience with book-keeping. I told him that I was not an accountant, but that, through my schooling, my work and the club, I had acquired a fair knowledge of the simple type of accounts which were epitomised by the men’s pay. This involved a weekly wage less deductions and any accrued debt. Captain Gibbs asked me to open an account with the Regimental Paymaster for every other rank and to keep these accounts in a ledger. I started by writing in copper plate the name of each soldier on separate double pages in the ledger. I sent away for a statement of accounts for each man. I entered each week’s pay on the credit side. When I agreed the balance with the soldier, I entered that. I deducted his insurance and any charge for clothing. When the Regimental Paymaster discovered our company was taking interest, his queries mysteriously disappeared. Captain Gibbs was delighted.”
While the London Irish were training in Wales, the focus of the war shifted to the skies over south-east England. Commander of the Luftwaffe Hermann Goerring declared that the German air force could defeat Britain on its own. Attacks against British air bases in south-east England were ordered. In the middle of August, a month also remembered for cloudless skies and warm sun, the RAF and Luftwaffe fought deadly battles above the Home Counties of England. RAF air bases were bombed. The attrition rate among pilots was terrifying. If the RAF had been broken, Germany would have been able to turn its attention to Britain’s factories, transport system and cities. Coincidentally, Ted returned to London to attend the marriage of his brother Daniel and Kathleen Stamp. The wedding took place at Corpus Christi Church on a beautiful late August day. The family photograph shows Ted, the first in his family in uniform. Their father Mick is suntanned, evidence of days spent in his garden. No one would imagine from their smiles that Britain’s fate was being determined that day above Kent.
“In August, we were granted our first seven days leave. I managed to time mine to attend Danny’s marriage. Danny now worked as a rigger in radio location, the forerunner of radar, and was in a reserved occupation. Kathleen’s father was the Chief Officer at Brixton prison. He would soon be promoted to Governor at Shrewsbury. We were fortunate that my leave was during the first part of the Battle of Britain so we missed the first phase of the Blitz in the autumn which was to mar many others’ leaves. The time in London was called privilege leave as it was not an entitlement. For some it would be no privilege but frightening due to bombing.”
The Battle of Britain was to be a close but decisive victory for the RAF and Britain. It ensured that Hitler would make no attempt to invade. In September, the Luftwaffe shifted its attentions away from RAF airbases to London. Eventually, bombing attacks were conducted exclusively at night. For Londoners, there followed two months of nightly terror. Hundreds of thousands sought shelter in London’s underground stations. After Dan’s wedding, Ted returned to Wales and a resumption of hard training. He recalled one exercise vividly.
“The alarm was raised just after dusk and we were bussed in a fleet of efficient and comfortable coaches. We were in full battle order and the vehicles careered around the Welsh countryside. There was no clue as to our whereabouts until we came to a halt in what appeared to be a small village. As the light came with the dawn, we noticed that nearby was a large church and some ruins. The village was the tiny city of St David’s in the far west of Pembrokeshire. At its centre was a magnificent cathedral after which the city is named. We could not leave our coaches and soon orders were given to depart. Whatever the object of the night-long exercise, it was considered a success. But it would be 22 years before I would have a chance to visit this lovely and historic relic of the early middle ages.”
Ted affectionately remembered Haverfordwest for its weekly concerts by the London Irish which included professional actors who were originally in F Company but had been spread through the battalion. For these, the county cinema’s vast stage was used. The battalion’s weekly magazine Caubeen was produced by its many journalists. They included Rodney Cockburn, who commanded the TCV Platoon, and Cyril James, a Corporal in the quartermasters’ department and a Daily Mirror journalist before the war. These happy times coincided with the worst weeks of the Blitz. For 57 consecutive nights from 7 September, London was the target of heavy bombing which started in the docklands and then expanded to encompass much of its built-up area. The Luftwaffe extended its bombing campaign to Birmingham and other major British cities. On 29 December, one of the heaviest raids of the war set the City of London ablaze. After, raids on London became less frequent, but more damaging. The worst of the war on the night of 11 May 1941 killed more than 3,000. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless. Perversely, the Londoners in the London Irish were safer than their families and friends at home. After almost six months in Wales, the London Irish were transported in a series of moves during a period of almost two years that took them to Worcestershire, West Sussex, Hampshire, Norfolk and, finally, Scotland.
“The London Irish moved once more, this time to Hardwicke House, an old mansion in Malvern in Worcestershire where we spent the winter of 1940/41. The towns of the Midlands had been hit by heavy bombing, but the war seemed far, far away to us.”
“We had many long and exhausting route marches. Captain Gibbs would then put us through arms drill. We cursed him but learned from his Batman Doug Brewer that Gibbs’ boots were often filled with blood. We realised that his sole purpose was to train us so that we would not be cannon fodder when our time to fight came. The company participated in exercises which often involved staying in bivouacs overnight. Two days after one, I was put on a charge for having a dirty greatcoat. I expected to lose my stripes, but Captain Gibbs listened to my excuse, which was completely unique. I said that I was obeying his order to keep the men’s accounts up to date. This kept me working all the week, yet I still had to join exercises and route marches. Once again, I was just admonished.”
“While we were at Malvern, Coventry was Blitzed. The 2nd Battalion sent parties to help clear the chaos. Waddy Weir had been appointed Assistant Storeman by Colour Sergeant Bevan. One evening, after consuming a cocktail of paraffin, rifle oil and other liquids, he piled up ammunition and mortar bombs and threatened to blow up the company billets. Shortly afterwards, he was charged in a civilian court and he was heard of no more.”
“I was given my second stripe and received another seven days leave which I spent in London. Every night, I slept in the cellar under 31 Arodene Road. One evening, after escorting a friend back to her home on Brixton Hill, bombs fell close by. I dived into the gutter and felt very foolish when I saw civilians around me had not. I was glad to return to the peace of Malvern.”
“Training was punctuated by amusing incidents. Sergeant Sullivan was Battalion Orderly Sergeant one Sunday when I was Orderly Corporal. The Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians and the other principal Christian denominations had marched off to church. All that remained was one man.
‘Religion?,’ Sullivan asked.
‘Swedenborgian, Sergeant,’ the man replied.
The soldier said he would like to attend a small chapel about a mile away. Without further ado, Sullivan called the man to attention with the command ‘church parade’ and marched him to the chapel. Perhaps, hitherto, he just had a free morning but he had not reckoned with Sergeant Sullivan’s zeal. Shortly afterwards, Sullivan and another efficient Sergeant called Bunny Guinness of the brewery family were gazetted officers in the Irish Guards.”
“Colour Sergeant Bevan had acquired an assistant in the form of a Corporal. He was a very pleasant Ulsterman with almost completely white hair and pale blue eyes. His official title was Pay Corporal, but as I was the one wrestling with the pay as well as being a Section Leader, I wondered what he actually did. He had one failing. Every now and again, he would go on a bender and be a thorough nuisance, particularly to me, as he wandered drunk around the billet. Early in 1941, he was posted for Officer Training. He was replaced as Pay Corporal by Corporal Rines Green.”
The tide of war which had flowed so strongly in Germany’s favour in 1940 began to swing Britain’s way. Despite the fall of Greece and Crete, the easy German victories were becoming harder to find. British, Commonwealth and Imperial troops defeated the Italian army in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and in Libya in the winter of 1940. On the home front in early spring 1941, the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish moved with the 47th London division to West Sussex where it was in reserve with its brigade. Ted was allocated to 13 platoon, “to spread the intelligentsia,” according to 13 Platoon commander 2nd Lieutenant FitzGerald. Its billets were in a complex called Westergate Wood House.
“The remainder of the battalion was tactically spread around villages in the area. We had barely settled in when I was called into Company Headquarters. Always fearing the worst, I reported to the CSM who greeted me cordially and said I was to go in to see Captain Gibbs. He knocked and I marched in and saluted. The OC looked up and smiled.
“Stand easy Corporal,” he said.”
“Captain Gibbs had studied my battle with the Regimental Paymaster over the men’s pay and congratulated me on my good work, but the Company still had the problem of the imprest account.
‘Do you think you could help me in bringing down the ridiculous number of observations each month?,’ he asked.
‘I’ll do my best, Sir.’ I replied.
‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘You will move immediately into Headquarters here and set about the imprest account which has to be rendered at the end of the month. Sergeant Major, see to that.’ I marched out with my head in a whirl. Making my way back to 13 Platoon, I reported to Lieutenant FitzGerald what had transpired. He said airily: ‘I already knew. You’ll be a Colour Sergeant soon.’ I was allocated a comfortable room, which I was to share with two others. There were two double bunks.”
“This was luxury, but I had to share it for a while with Gordon who was on the point of leaving. Corporal Green was the antithesis of Gordon. Like many others who were kicking their heels in Malvern, he had volunteered for transfer to the RAF as aircrew. I had filled in the papers myself but had second thoughts. I had volunteered for nothing. I was in God’s hands, so why stick my neck out?”
“I was Orderly Corporal. At the crack of dawn, I abstracted my application from about ten in the Company Office. No mention was ever made of it. I know that Gibbs was sorry that so many of his “brains” were leaving. He may have been relieved I was staying since he had other plans for me.”
“Green and I became boon companions. At mealtimes, we walked together to the mess hall and we appeared to be inseparable. I do not think we were too popular with the senior NCOs. But in Danny’s eyes, we could do no wrong. I believe that Rines was a sort of permanent Orderly Sergeant, as he seemed to keep himself busy. Probably the others envied us our apparently cushy numbers, although mine was not. With Colour Sergeant Bevan’s approval, I set about analysing the imprest account and quickly came to the conclusion that we should beat the Paymaster at his own game by anticipating and giving an explanation before it was demanded. Sitting down at the typewriter, I wrote brief notes referring to each observation the paymaster had made. I finished every letter with something like ‘I have the honour to be etc’ I persuaded Captain Gibbs to sign each one which he did with a grin. ‘This should keep them busy!’ The imprest account that month was sent off as a bulky parcel. Meanwhile, I started to assist Bevan in other duties: collecting rations from the Quartermaster at Fontwell Park, gathering clothing from the Quartermaster clothing store, handling laundry and boot repairs and undertaking any of the numerous tasks that Bevan could no longer bear.”
“The weather was improving and we were moved to Atherington in Sussex, a large house and estate owned by Lord Moyne. He was another member of the Guinness family and was a government minister in the Middle East. The estate and the attached golf course occupied the sea front from the mouth of the Arun to a group of buildings at Atherington itself. The Company Headquarters where I worked was in Moyne’s beach house which was a sail-less windmill with outbuildings called Climping. I was allocated a room with Green. After a couple of weeks, Gibbs summoned me to his office.
He almost shouted: ‘We’ve done it! We have beaten them.’
‘But sir’, I said. ‘There’s still one observation.’
‘That’s only the balance,’ he replied.
‘Thank you Corporal. I think I am the first one to do it. It’ll be free drinks tonight.’
Secretly, he called Danny Long and gave him some money for the evening.
That afternoon, Long said: ‘Do you drink corporal?’
‘A little, Sir!’
‘Perhaps you would like to join me for a couple this evening?’
‘But, Sir. You are a warrant officer and I am just a corporal.’
‘That’s all right. The captain knows.’
That evening, he and I walked together companionably to the Railway Tavern, just across the bridge over the Arun.
‘What’s yours,’ he asked. ‘A half pint of light ale, please Sir.’
He’d gentrified me.”
“I smoked, seldom drank and never used bad language. Despite their backgrounds, men like Green would swear like troopers. He tried his best to annoy me, and cause me to swear, as he thought my gentle speech reinforced the ‘Rosie’ nickname. I was unaware that some suspected the origin of the name. One day, Green so frustrated me that I replied with a mouthful of the juiciest army expletives. He was so proud of his achievement, he openly boasted of it to the others. I, at last, had become one of them.”
“Green was finally rewarded as he was transferred to the RAF to be trained, he hoped, as a pilot. One day I was in my room when I heard cries coming from Sergeant Dann’s room. He was formerly a Battalion Weapons Training Instructor. He had worked with Corporal Terry Leahy under Captain Brett. Leahy had been one of the earlier candidates for Air Crew Training and was sent to Canada for flying instruction. Dann clutched a letter. Tears ran down his cheeks:
‘Terry’s dead,’ he cried. ‘He was killed when he tried to land his plane after his first solo flight.’
This was to happen to many who had volunteered for the RAF and the Army Air Corps as glider pilots. I later heard that Rines had achieved his ambition and had qualified as a pilot but I heard nothing further.”
On 22 June 1941, nearly 200 divisions invaded the Soviet Union in an operation code named ‘Barbarossa’. The Axis armies quickly scored enormous victories, destroying Soviet divisions, killing hundreds of thousands and taking prisoner more than three million. The ghastliness of total war brought a new horror. SS murder squads embarked on a programme of mass shootings of Jews, Communists and any other enemies of the Reich. But for the London Irish, the start of the war on the Eastern Front was a distant echo. There seemed no way that Britain could win, but there was now little chance it would lose. Ted enjoyed the delights of guarding England’s south coast.
“The summer of 1941 was beautiful. I enjoyed the wonderful weather and the sparkling sea off the Sussex coast. We occasionally bathed but were extremely wary because of the mine danger. Our billets were close to three airfields including Ford and Tangmere. At night, there was a great amount of aerial activity. Some bombing was heard but that was often the result of the jettisoning of bombs which could not be dropped on target. The nearest railway station was at Ford Junction three miles from our billet.”
“Lane, Commander of F Company, was about to leave the Regiment and return to his family business. He was attached to our Company where was in his element. Dressed in fatigues and soft shoes, he supervised our latest project which involved erecting with tubular scaffolding a vast barrier against landing craft that stretched from the Arun to Middleton and beyond. This required working in the sea at low tide, but Lane never presented anything less than an ultra-smart appearance. When reporting to G Company Commander Captain Gibbs, technically his junior, Lane would meticulously snap to attention and throw up a smart salute. We now knew why Gibbs loved him so much. I was sorry when he finally left.”
“Early in our stay at the windmill, Colour Sergeant Bevan packed his bags and was off. He had reverted to his former rank and had applied for Officer’s Training. ‘Part II Orders’ were published giving details of the changes. A Sergeant Jones had been promoted to Company Quartermaster Sergeant and posted to G Company. Corporal E O’Sullivan was promoted to Acting Unpaid Lance Sergeant. I was elated until the Company Commander called me in. He said he was sorry, but he had done his best. I was mystified.
He explained: ‘I wanted you to be my Colour Sergeant to succeed Bevan. You are doing all the work. You have mastered the accounts. You are the only man for the job.’
He told me the Commanding Officer was adamant after the failure of Bevan and others who had been promoted out of turn.
‘The colonel said you look too young and you were too inexperienced. Have you thought of growing a moustache. What about this ridiculous nickname. They call you Rosie, don’t they?’
I explained how I first got the name.
Then I said, mischievously:‘You ought to hear what they call you?’
‘What’s that?,’ asked Gibbs.
‘Spider,’ I replied. He accepted this as a joke.”
“Gibbs told me that the Regimental Quartermaster and the Commanding Officer had agreed that I should remain and instruct Sergeant Jones in the mysteries of the job. Jones, a former Territorial, was a thick set man of medium height in his early thirties with a heavy moustache. We became firm friends but addressed each other formally. A printer by trade, Jones was well-educated. He had been a very efficient Platoon Sergeant in F Company and he missed them. After about three weeks, he said ‘I did not join the terriers to become a glorified clerk.’ He would find out much later that it was in fact probably the most exacting job in an infantry regiment.”
“At about this time, Lance-Corporal Baker, the Company Clerk and former Barker’s employee, showed me a little book. In it were listed the NCOs and against each one personal observations had been made. There were about 10 qualities listed. Most of the NCOs apparently lacked many qualities, except two: Baker and myself. He lacked one whereas I scored full marks except the quality leader, and this was written in pencil. I was astounded. Baker was to be awarded a field commission in Tunisia. I tried hard to live up to the Gibbs’ ideals. He was probably the best officer I served under and the most memorable. Once again, G Company had no ranking Quartermaster Sergeant, only a locum almost universally known as ‘Rosie’. Gibbs tried to get me promoted again but to no avail. He asked how my moustache was getting along and said that I looked like a 17-year old with a little down on his upper lip.”
“An alternative was found, none other than the redoubtable Pipe Major Evans. The duties of the Pipe Major in a situation enjoyed by the London Irish in Sussex were far from onerous. The Band took part in various parades and appeared singly at guard mounting and on company route marches, but this was nothing compared to the work of the rifle companies that summer. They slaved to erect scaffolding which guarded our front at low water mark, patrolled the area night and day, put up barbed wire entanglements and trained. On gas days, we were compelled to wear our respirators for hours. This was difficult in an office, but absolute hell for those digging and building.”
“Our predecessors the Canadians had laid minefields during the emergency after Dunkirk in the summer of 1940, but in their enthusiasm had not plotted the mines’ positions. They had also placed many in the sand dunes. One morning, I was walking across the golf course to 15 Platoon when I heard a loud bang. The head of a red setter landed on the path immediately in front of me. It belonged to Lady Grania Guinness, Lord Moyne’s daughter who, with her friend Princess Obolensky, ran a Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) tea van which supplied the soldiers with tea and sandwiches in their breaks. We adored them both. Lady Grania was heartbroken. The dog had been her companion and pet. A couple of days later, two gunners from a local coastal battery were killed crossing the dunes on their way back to their emplacements after a swim.”
“For the first weeks, Archie was quite content to twirl his moustache and let me do all the work, apart from collecting rations. I always accompanied him on this duty as he would retreat to the nearby Sergeants’ Mess. But we became friends and on nickname terms. Captain Gibbs knew what was going on and was quite annoyed. On 24 May, I went into see Archie, who was enjoying a break, about an overdue document he had.
‘The Quartermaster’s asking for the G1098 to be completed and returned,’ I said.
Archie replied: ‘Don’t worry about G1098, it’s battleships you should be thinking about.’
With that, a soldier came in and said: ‘HMS Hood has been sunk!’
Archie was speechless and never forgot it. Whenever we met afterwards, he would greet me with one word: ‘Battleships.’”
“I was granted leave. I arranged for it to coincide with my sister Nellie’s wedding to Laurie Eacott. I surprised everyone by turning up with Sergeant’s stripes, earned after less than two years in the Army, on my service jacket now worn with widened trousers. I also wore my bayonet and webbing belt which was theoretically the correct dress for a Sergeant. At the wedding, all the services were represented: my brother Tom was in the RAF; my brother Bill was in the Royal Navy; my cousin Dennis Hanlon was in the Royal Navy and the groom’s brother Charlie Eacott was in the Royal Marines. At evening service that Sunday, the canopy over the Blessed Sacrament was carried by my brothers, my cousin and I to represent the three armed services. Father Kelly was delighted.”“I returned to Atherington and continued my work. It was now full summer and our role was changed. We were relieved on the coast and moved to camp in the grounds of Goodwood House below Trundle Hill. The battalion went back to training from the bottom up: Section to Division. Archie still relied on me to do his work and even the Quartermaster called me Colour Sergeant.”
“In G Company, I was still a Section Leader as well with eight men to command. To my section was added as Second-in Command none other than Corporal Stock, who was waiting to go to Officer Training. Sergeant Major Danny Long, however, had different ideas. He said to me: ‘I want that man’s bloody stripes.’ The implication was that somehow I would set him up. Stock was not a smart soldier and, I believe, bored with his longest continuous role as a Corporal in the London Irish. I warned Nigel. He became a friend and he shortly left to be transferred to the Indian Army where he rose to be a Major in the Gurkha Rifles.”
“Despite the workload, the only normal duty I was excused was that of Guard Commander. I was paid for the extra stripe but I was earning every penny. We were now doing joint exercises with the Canadians and the Home Guard, unpaid civilian volunteers with regular jobs. The Guard were keen and showed us up towards the end of one exercise when an umpire caught our platoon laying down on a bank resting. He remarked: ‘Drunk with success’ and promptly wrote the lot of us off as casualties.”
“Archie was occasionally called upon to lead the Pipe Band and it was obvious that he would not remain in his position as Quartermaster. In fact, I think he had tried to revoke but was told by the Commanding Officer to stay put for the moment. I, too, was not pleased. After seeing Stock leave for officers’ training, I spoke to Major Gibbs who said he would recommend me too and would be happy if I were to be one of his subalterns. But he said the sad thing was that I was a natural Colour Sergeant and he considered it the most crucial position in a company. After discussing it with my parents and Philip White during leave, I persuaded myself with the excuse: ‘Never volunteer.’ “
“Towards the end of our camp in Goodwood Park, Archie packed his bags and went back to his pipes. He had never forsaken them and had spent hours in his tent playing a chanter. An ultra-smart regular soldier sporting a north west frontier ribbon and the badges of a Quartermaster Sergeant replaced Evans. James McKee was a Presbyterian Ulsterman and we did not get along. He was new to his rank and seemed to object to the key position I had made for myself.”
“Once more we were moved, this time to Chichester and into the ecclesiastical college of the Chichester diocese. We were out of tents but back on the floor. I remember with pride one Sunday morning when the London Irish Catholics were on parade for Mass. I was the senior person on parade and I marched them to the local church. After, I called a marker and fell them in outside the church. It must have appeared strange to the crowd of onlookers to see 30 large men being drilled by a boy Sergeant. I was so pleased with them that I halted them outside a cafe close to our billets for tea and sandwiches. I only wished there had been a piper present. One on parade was my friend Bill Nagle, our Transport Corporal, whose wife had lodgings nearby. We liked Chichester. In some ways, it reminded us of Haverfordwest. Despite my Quartermaster work, I was still a Duty Sergeant and was sent off with a Lance-Corporal, four men, and a driver in a truck to guard a crashed Royal Navy Seal aircraft. We guarded it for three days until the Navy came. There was a sudden change in the company. CSM Danny Long was transferred to the 2nd Battalion of the RUR. He was replaced by CSM Pierrotti, a former London Irishman who was being returned by the Ulsters. Dutchy Dalton, a popular regular, was sent to the depot. We were blessed with the return of Sergeant Simmonds from the RAF. Simmonds had failed Air Crew training and had been retained at Blackpool as a sort of Drill Sergeant. They were a perfect match; Pierrotti was a natural bully who treated his company, including his Sergeants, with contempt. Simmonds was a toady and became a boon companion of the new CSM.”
“But the reputation of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish had spread. We were moved to join the 38th (Irish) Brigade, together with the 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, under the command of Brigadier The O’Donovan. Our new location was a Nissen Hut Camp on two sites in the Norfolk heath-land. G Company was separated from the other companies by rough land and a mile in distance. At first, the walk was pleasant. But, as the weather deteriorated in the winter of 1941/42, it became a thrice daily penance. Our brigade was now in the 1st Infantry Division, the top infantry unit. Our new home was in Didlington. It was isolated from all but small villages: Northwold, Methwold, Feltwell and Mundford. I was thrilled however to see Oxburgh Hall, the home of the recusant Bellingham family.”
On 6 December 1941, the Japanese air force devastated the US Pacific fleet at anchor at Pearl Harbour. The surprise attack was in preparation for a vast Japanese invasion across the Pacific Basin. The war in the Pacific opened a new chapter of brutality. But it paved the way for victory for Britain and its allies. The US immediately declared war against the Empire of Japan. Germany, honouring a pre-war promise, in turn declared war against the US. Britain, alone six months earlier, was now in partnership with the Soviets and the Americans. It was the turning point. In Norfolk, Lance-Sergeant O’Sullivan had other matters on his mind.
“My relationship with McKee did not improve. One day coming into the office, he saw me working on the men’s accounts. He wanted me to do something he considered more urgent, so he picked up the book and threw it into a corner. Gibbs was away at the time. I left the ledger, almost thankfully, as there were one or two problems I could not solve. Gibbs returned about a month later and asked to see the books. When he saw that they were well out of date, he asked for an explanation. I gave it. Gibbs told McKee that I would be returned to duty.”
“I was sent back to 14 Platoon as a Section Leader. Two persons joined the unit who saved my sanity and, probably, my stripes, which appeared to be a target for CSM Pierrotti. They were 2nd Lieutenant Noel Dorrity and Sergeant Patrick Daly. The former was a product of Ballymena who had acquired his education at Campbell’s, a college in Belfast, and had been sent to the Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU). Daly, a regular, had been a Sergeant in the 2nd Battalion of the RUR.”
“One was a Protestant northerner, the other a southern Catholic. They were both efficient, effective, generous and friendly. The only unpleasant thing was that we had to share the Sergeants’ hut with Pierrotti and Simmonds. Pierrotti was loud, bullying but inefficient. At company drill, he did not stand at attention but gave his orders with his hands behind his back. He called everyone – men and NCOs including Sergeants – a lazy shower of bastards and any form of abuse his small mind and large mouth could produce.”
The news continued to be gloomy. Hong Kong fell. The Japanese army surged into Indo-China and then into Malaysia. In February 1942, it had reached the north side of the narrow channel separating the mainland from Singapore, the principal remaining British fortress in the Far East. Despite being reinforced, Singapore’s commander General Percival surrendered to the Imperial Army on 15 February 1942. About 80,000 men and women went into captivity to add to the 50,000 that had already been taken prisoner by the Japanese. Many were to die of starvation, disease and brutal treatment. The remnants of the British Army retreated north into Burma and eventually established a defensive line just within the territory of British India. The War for the Atlantic was coming to climax. German U-boats sank increasing numbers of ships taking fuel and food to Britain. If the Atlantic route was shut down, Britain would be starved into submission. While these dramas were taking place, Ted was suffering at the hands of Pierroti and Simmonds in Didlington.
“Release came. The Battalion Sergeants’ Mess caterer, who had held that position since 1939, had asked to be returned to duty. I was appointed to take over. Moving to the Sergeant’ Mess, I had my own pleasant room and a staff to look after my wants. There was no more Pierrotti. It appeared heavenly. Branch, my predecessor, had worked out an order of priority for the members of the Sergeant’s Mess and Lance-Sergeants like me were not very high on the list. I was junior to practically everyone in the mess. They all wanted special treatment. To the usual request for ‘Caterer!’ And the demand: ‘What’s this?’ My standard reply was ‘That’s your ration, Sir (or Sergeant)’. I did, however, arrange a weekly trip to King’s Lynn or Wisbech.”
“I developed my own circle of friends. I endured this form of purgatory in the mess for about three months until the Officers were invited to a Mess night dinner. After a few drinks, most of our guests left, but many of the junior officers carried on with their celebration, which culminated in a rugger scrum between the Officers and Sergeants who had remained. The mess was wrecked, the stove and chimney were pulled down and there was much superficial damage.”
“Disturbed by the commotion, HQ CSM Billy Girvin looked in and brought the Adjutant. The next morning, I cleared up the mess with the aid of a fatigue party. Afterwards, I was dressed down by the RSM. I asked him: ‘What could I do?’ The damage was caused by Officers including Captains and Sergeants senior to me. All I had was the authority of my rank and five riflemen. It was decided I should return to duty. The officers were carpeted by the Second-in-Command and the Sergeants by the RSM.”
“I was back in G Company when my new Commanding Officer Captain Grant sent for me. He told me that I was to go on a fortnight’s battle training course run by the division. It was obvious that I was being set up. I reported to the camp with Corporal Howard, a gentle but efficient Corporal from F Company. My stripes were on the line. The students were a mixed bag of Officers, Sergeants and Corporals from all the nine battalions in the 1st Division. It was run on Commando lines. Howard and I shook everyone when we were called on parade. As Riflemen, we marched at 140 paces to the minute and would be standing at ease on the parade ground while the others were just about sloping arms. We were told to cut down our speed. We did all sorts of work, which resembled my scout training. Howard often appeared tremulous, as did many others, but I was in my element.”
“Among our students was young Captain John Coldwell-Horsfall of the Royal Irish Fusiliers (he was subsequently to become Ted’s Battalion Commander). On the final day, there was an exercise. The platoon in attack was commanded by me. The runner was Captain Horsfall. I gave the Section Leaders their orders clearly and the attack by sections began. Finally, the School Commander shouted: ‘Enemy in retreat. Pursue your enemy.’ I led the platoon as it ran in a line with bayonets fixed. Before us was a river. ‘What do we do?’, shouted an Officer who was a Section Leader. ‘Follow me’, I shouted and jumped into the fast stream. The water came up to my neck. The Course Commander shouted from the bank: ‘Come back! I’m only allowed 5 per cent casualties.’ I had almost 30 soldiers in the water in hot pursuit. We had a post-mortem. There was no criticism, but there was no praise.”
“Packing my kit, I returned to my unit with trepidation. About three days later, Captain Grant told me to get dressed in my best uniform with my belt and sidearm and see Colonel Starkey. We walked together to the Orderly Room. I waited outside with the miscreants but not as one of them. Captain Grant entered and, about three minutes later, the RSM marched me in. Captain Grant stood alongside Colonel Starkey who was seated. Still expecting the worst, I clenched my teeth. Instead, Starkey said: ‘I have in front of me probably the finest report I have ever had of an NCO’s conduct on a Divisional Course. They have requested that you be returned as an Instructor. I am afraid that this will not be possible, as you will soon learn. Congratulations, your effort has been a credit to the battalion.’ Joining me outside, Captain Grant added his praise. I said that I had not realised I had done well. Putting it down to false modesty, he brushed it off with a smile.”
“I will also never forget a game of rugby football played at Didlington. The battalion team, one of the best in the army, was to play as the ‘probables ‘against the ‘possibles’, a scratch team of mainly Sergeants. I played on the wing for the possibles. The other team had Irish, Scottish and Welsh internationals as well as many other army representative players. About mid-way through the first half, I was literally picked up and thrown by Lieutenant Charles Reidy, an Irish international of 6 foot 6 inches known as Elephant Man (Reidy, educated at Stonyhurst, was one of four brothers who played for the London Irish rugby team before the war. Wounded in in action in Tunisia in 1943, Reidy lost an eye and his sense of smell, but he returned to first-class sport after the war and became the Irish hammer-throwing champion in 1953. He died in 2004). I discovered all my top front teeth were loose. I reported to the Medical Officer. His treatment was a quick brush with iodine. Another result was the loss to our platoon of Noel Dorrity who was so badly injured he had not recovered sufficiently to go abroad when the call came in November. There was never another battalion rugby trial played, as so many were injured.”
On 4 June, the London Irish received secret orders to be ready for active service in 23 days. They were moved from the 1st Infantry Division to the 6th Armoured Division. On 7 June, the 2nd Battalion headed by road to Scotland.
“It was early summer 1942 and we were on our way again. The Irish Brigade had been chosen as the lorry-borne infantry in the 6th Armoured Division, a new type of formation created from the cream of the army, so we were told. Our new home was in the grounds of yet another titled potentate. Our host this time was the Marquess of Bute who gave over part of his vast demesne at Auchinlech in Ayrshire to the 6th Armoured Division.”
“A divisional display was conducted in a beautiful Scottish glen amidst the rolling hills of Ayrshire. I was one of the representatives of the London Irish. Our new divisional badge was a white clenched fist on a black square background. In turn, the units did their piece starting with the Royal Horse Artillery, the oldest regiment in the army. ‘We always gallop into battle,’ said the Colonel. They did. Three trucks drawing 25 pound artillery pieces and limbers sped into the arena across the rolling landscape. Up went the first 25 pounder and rolled over. We were to have been treated to the spectacle of some rapid fire. Fortunately, this idea was abandoned”
“Then came 6-pounder anti-tank guns and Beaufort anti-aircraft weapons. The Royal Engineers followed with a collection of vehicles, including a bulldozer. The Royal Corps of Signals were next with vehicles bristling with antennae. Next were representatives of the division’s three cavalry units, the 16/5th Lancers, the 17/21st Lancers and the Lothian & Border Horse. A Valentine tank came trundling in, followed by a Matilda at under 10mph. These were followed by a Crusader, which bounced along at about 30mph. I was impressed at the speed but the tank did look flimsy. Next came several types of armoured car. Following these, came the battalion of motorised infantry in their jeeps, carriers, armoured cars and trucks. Then came the Rifle Brigade. The Irish Brigade was represented by one TCV containing a platoon of the 6th Inniskillings in full battle order with the platoon bicycle on the back.”
“The support regiment was next and it gave a demonstration of three-inch mortar fire. So the mortar bursts could be seen, incendiary bombs were used which accidentally ignited sheep grazing on the hill. Medics, dentists, the RASC and a RAOC bath unit brought the display to a close. The climax was a battle bomber and a fighter which flew over to end the occasion. It was impressive, but would it have frightened the Germans? It frightened me, some of the gunners and the sheep who were never the same.”
“We suffered the loss of Colonel Starkey at the end of June. He was obliged to leave, as he had completed three years as Commanding Officer. We always presumed that Starkey, who was born in 1899, would lead us in the battle we knew was coming. He was snapped up as Commanding Officer of a Reconnaissance Regiment. Starkey’s achievement was to bring a second line territorial regiment to the top of the British Army.”
“His successor was Lieutenant Colonel Jeffreys, a regular from the 1st Battalion of the RUR. We were engaged on very large and often long exercises over days. On one of these, because of my ability in map-reading, I was number two in the sector control team which managed the traffic of a divisional exercise. The largest and longest exercise was ‘Dryshod’. It involved all the troops in south Scotland. It was the dry run for an invasion. But where?”
The answer was then being provided by the leaders of the UK and the US. The American priority was to get the war over as quickly as possible. That meant taking the shortest route across the channel and into Germany. Churchill and his commanders initially agreed with this strategy, but the experience of withdrawal from Greece and Crete raised doubts about the policy. After months of debate, President Roosevelt told his top military advisers that French North Africa would be the principal objective, not France, and that an invasion should take place as soon as possible.
On 13 August 1942, General Dwight D Eisenhower was named Commander-in-Chief of the operation, which was code-named Torch. The impetus increased following the appointment in August 1942 of General Montgomery as commander of the British 8th Army in North Africa. It had just been driven back more 1,000 miles by the Afrika Corps led by General Erwin Rommel. There was fear that Cairo would fall and the way would be open for the Germans to capture Middle East oil fields. Montgomery restored morale, rebuilt the army and prepared to go on the offensive. In October 1942, he ordered a massive attack against German positions at El Alamein, 50 miles west of Cairo. After a week of hard pounding, the German line was broken and the Afrika Corps retreated towards Libya. They were never to re-enter Egypt. It was the first decisive victory by the British Army over the Germans. The cost in lives was terrible, but it was the first piece of good news most Britons had had for more than three years. Churchill put it well in his memoirs: ‘Before it, there were no victories; after it, there were no defeats.’
The die had been cast for the Irish Brigade. They had been selected to be part of the ‘Torch’ campaign. The London Irish, ignorant of what was in store, stepped up their preparations as the summer of 1942 turned into autumn.
“The nights were getting longer and we spent a couple of them out on the high moors. One was the coldest in my life. The hospitality of the Scottish housewives was incredible. While in TCVs and in convoy, we were plied with tea and I believe they lost many cups as a result. After a bleak and cold night, I knocked on the door of a cottage where I was able to wash myself and was given a hot breakfast. As well as exercises, we took part in 100 mile marches and five day marches. One in which I led my platoon took us from Auchinlech, through Ayr, Irvine, Ardrossan and Largs and in a great circle through Strathaven and back. When we arrived at Strathaven, the Company Commander discovered that we had already completed the 100 miles and transport conveyed us back. We concluded this was preparation not training. We believed we were to be the assault troops for the second front in Europe.”
“I was sent off on another 14-day course based on commando type training which was held at Irvine. It was designed to test NCOs to the limit. Ninety per cent of Sergeants and Corporals had never taken a course in anything, yet I was embarking on my second within six months after a distinction on my first. Was someone still trying to get me, I wondered? We went through the usual nonsense of crossing slippery board bridges over fast-flowing streams and jumping off cliffs through smoke and flame. Assault courses with ever increasing hazards were tackled. My philosophy was: ‘They can’t or won’t want to kill or injure us, so just go for it.’”
“The timid and tremulous were bullied and cajoled. I cut fear out of my mind and carried on. The last day was at the commando depot and involved negotiating the most heinous assault course that man could devise. Live bullets were fired over and around us and we were pelted with plastic but very explosive grenades. The finale was to wade in the River Irvine against the current up to our chests in cold water, avoiding at the same time the many obstacles left for us. I awaited with trepidation the results of the course and possible failure and demotion.”
“After about three days, I was summoned once more to the Commanding Officer. I was marched in. Captain Grant stood beside the seated Jeffreys. Both smiled as I stood to attention. Jeffreys said: ‘Stand at ease.’ He then told me that my report from the battle school was excellent and what a credit I had been to the battalion. He actually stood up and shook my hand. My London Irish companion on the course was marched in, given a thorough dressing down and sent back to the regiment’s Ballymena depot. He was no fool. He had probably saved his own life as the future would show.”
“There had been many changes in the family. My sister Nellie was seriously ill. During the Blitz, she had spent many nights in air raid shelters. This experience, coupled with a weakness caused by pneumonia and pleurisy during her late teens, had developed into tuberculosis, then a killer. As a result, she was in a sanatorium at Milford. On leave, I visited her in the bleak ward that was open to the cold air and meant to be beneficial. My brother Tom, an Armourer in the RAF, had been moved around Britain like me. Billy and his friend Denis Webb, Pat Webb’s younger brother, had together volunteered for the Royal Navy where they both qualified for training as Wireless Operators. Denis contracted a minor ailment and, as a consequence, they were separated.”
“My youngest brother Bernard had left Horsham, where he had been billetted as an evacuee with Father Cassidy. He was a pupil at the Rotherhithe Nautical School, which was now located in Newquay, in west Wales. My sister Lily, also an evacuee, did not remain in Horsham for long after Bernard’s transfer and returned home. Danny was feeling out of it, being the only one of his brethren remaining in civvies in his reserved occupation in radar. He enlisted in the RAF for flying duties. Because the training would be brief, he opted to be a Wireless Operator and Air Gunner.”
Four of the five O’Sullivan brothers would be involved in the war on land, on the high seas and in the air all over the world. But there would never be a photograph of them together in uniform. At one time, there had been a desire for them all to join the London Irish. The consequences could have been terrible. Five Sullivan brothers from Iowa in the US were allowed to serve together on the USS Juneau. They all died when the Juneau was sunk during the battle for Guadacanal on 13 November 1942. The US government subsequently banned family members serving together. The tragedy of brothers dying in the war inspired the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. The Ryan family was fictional. The Sullivan and O’Sullivan brothers were not. As the prospect of going overseas increased, there were changes in the London Irish.
“The personnel of the battalion were always being changed, although we kept climbing the efficiency ladder. While we were at Didlington and already in the Irish Brigade, a draft of about 200 NCOs and men were taken for posting to a Highland division. The Commanding Officer insisted that only the best should go. We were topped up with a draft from the London Irish depot in Ballymena and from the 70th Battalion. We also received a large draft of Fusiliers. Those in charge, even when they knew we were headed overseas, sent trained men away. The largest intake of all came at the start of the autumn 1942. They comprised about 250 men and NCOs from the Liverpool Irish. The teams and co-ordinated sections of the battalion that had been painstakingly created in three years of training were to be broken up time and time again.”
“Before the big draft of new recruits arrived, I was finally promoted to paid full Sergeant. At the same time, Ian Brooks and Hammy Hamilton were made Company Quartermaster Sergeants and transferred to R Company which existed only as a cadre. When the draft with their red hackles and caubeens marched in, I was attached to R Company to assist the Company’s Colour Sergeants. I had to instruct the two in the intricacies of a Quartermaster Sergeant’s job and then return to my platoon. Ian, a product of Marjons, was quick and attentive. Hammy, on the other hand, was not interested.”
“After about three weeks, I spoke to R Company Commander Rodney Cockburn and told him that I wished to be returned to my platoon as I would shortly be leading them into battle and did not know many of them. Cockburn went to see the Commanding Officer. I started to pack. He came back and said ‘Stay. Look at ‘part II’ tomorrow.’
The next morning I was promoted to Colour Sergeant and transferred to R Company. Before leaving G Company for the last time, I shared my bell tent with the recently transferred Provost Sergeant Denis Griffin, who had been acting as an unofficial Regimental Policeman. He represented the battalion as a light heavyweight and occasionally heavyweight boxer and had been champion in both weights in every command the battalion served with. He was Anglo-Irish, something over six feet in height and, despite his years as an amateur pugilist, completely unmarked. Paradoxically, he was quiet and unassuming and a very good friend. His place as Police Sergeant had been filled by my old friend Corporal Anderson, who had, as a rifleman, helped to carry me and my section to our orienteering victory at Haverfordwest in 1940. I was lucky in having such wonderful friends. When I went to R, Griffin took over my platoon. A subaltern was in command but it was the Sergeant that was the real platoon leader if he was any good.”
“The battalion moved out of the tented camp and the companies were spread around in billets in the mainly mining villages and towns of Ayrshire, close to Auchinlech. R Company was placed a distance from the other companies in Muirkirk, a small mining town. We were the first troops stationed there since the First World War and the local people welcomed us with open arms and tables. They put on ceildh dances for us and seemed to be trying to prove that Scottish meanness was a myth. But I already was aware of this after nearly six months of enjoying their generosity. I became friendly with the young assistant manager of the local colliery. He conducted me around the mine and underground up to the coal face itself.”
“After about a month, R Company was moved back to Auchinlech but this time into the big house itself. I was to stay as the Marquess of Bute’s guest for only a short period. On 10 November 1942, a signal arrived from battalion which tersely announced that Colour Sergeant O’Sullivan, E was transferred to E Company where I would report before 1200 hours. I said goodbye to my new friends and, particularly, to Ian Brooks. He had had a dispiriting premonition. About a month earlier, we were talking about palmistry and I rubbished it. He on the other hand appeared to believe what he saw in his palm which suggested the future did not look good.”
“My truck dumped me and my kit in New Cumnock. I reported to Major Gibbs, E Company Commander who shook me by the hand. ‘You are my Colour Sergeant at last,’ he said. ‘Don’t unpack as we will be off this evening.’ Of all the Company Quartermaster Sergeants, I was the only one unable to put comforts in the company transport before it had been dispatched a week before. I, therefore, had to dump some of my belongings because I was restricted to what I could pack in my kitbag. I met the other Sergeants, most of whom I was acquainted with. The Sergeant Major was the massive Billy Allen, the Drill Sergeant who trained us with Danny Long. I had exchanged many words with him about the size of his ration in the mess.”
“It was dark when I paraded in the street with my new company wearing full marching order and carrying my rifle. All I had in my pack were a change of socks and underwear, a greatcoat, a spare shirt, a groundsheet, my missal and a book of poems called Multum in Parva (Much in Little). An anti-gas cape, a respirator and a steel helmet were strapped on my pack. The rest was in my kitbag, which originally had written upon it, in white capitals: Rifleman. O’Sullivan, E. The initials spelt ‘ROSE’. We marched to the station and then boarded a train and steamed into the night. The big question was ‘Where to?’”
Ted was about to embark on an extraordinary and dangerous journey that was to last two-and-a-half years. He was 23 years and eight months old.