The Atomic Sergeant Major

“I returned to Austria across Europe, but by a different route. When I arrived, I was informed that I had been absent without leave for 14 days. I showed my papers issued by Aldershot which explained my extended absence was due to sickness. Returning to my company, I took over as before and settled down to finish my service. I discovered that I had extra duties and was responsible as duty officer for mounting the company guard. One day, I had to rebuke Nick Mosley for being untidily dressed while inspecting it. He was not a smart soldier and I probably exceeded my authority. I wrote often to Pat Webb. I kept her replies in a little tin.

Something of a fitness fanatic, I would rise early, dress in PE kit and embark on a long run which was particularly needed after a mess night. On occasions, I would hear the clip-clop of a trotting horse on the same path and a voice would cheerily greet me, ‘Good morning colour sergeant.’. I would gasp a reply. It was the 2nd Battalion’s commanding officer Colonel Horsfall. He often would send to the central mess fish, game and stag that he had killed.”

The fraternising rules had been relaxed and we had become very friendly with the German ladies who could not return to their homes in different parts of their homeland. I was considered something of an enigma and was asked by the adjutant why I was not an officer. She said: ‘Your name, O’Sullivan. The ‘O’ is similar to Von and it means of.’ I explained the name and the clan system of Ireland. We held a dinner and invited the officers and the ladies to the company sergeants’ mess. The ladies invited the sergeants to their cottage. I arranged a swimming test for the company and was surprised to discover how few were able to swim as much as 100 yards. Yet our company, now reinforced, comprised about 100 fit, young soldiers.

After about a month, I was promoted to Warrant Officer II and was posted as CSM of HQ Company. I could not believe it. George Charnick gave me my symbols of rank: a green caubeen and blue hackle with the large chromium badge and a fine, black walking stick. Rodney Cockburn greeted me warmly and told me he wanted me to smarten up the company which totalled about 250 men. This I did, focussing my attention on the billets, which were dirty and untidy. I next came down on the drivers as they were walking about with collars open and their hands in their pockets. I was not popular. I had never been this sort of person before. Rodney called me the Atomic Sergeant Major because I obtained the results that were needed at that time.

Horsfall wanted us to look like a conquering army of occupation.  HQ Company was letting the rest down. They had been slack under an easy CSM. At the same time, I tried to improve social conditions for the men and arranged a company dance in the local auberge. It was a success but men were getting drunk and I ordered the bar to be closed. The transport sergeant refused to leave, so I put him under open arrest and sent him to his billet. I was assisted by Hugh Danbury, who was my colour sergeant, Sergeant Dickie Smith and Corporal Charlie McCombe. The latter two were members of the battalion boxing team. I closed the dance down and was invited back to the private quarters of the landlord where his family thanked me for bringing the evening to a peaceful close.

Danbury and the others remained outside to encourage the lads to go home and were surprised to see the transport platoon minus their sergeant approaching. ‘Where’s the little bastard?,’ they shouted, ‘We want to do him. He put our sergeant under arrest.’  Most were the worse for drink. Danbury lined up with the boxers and said: ‘All right. As he is only a little bloke and there are a lot of you, do us first, then you can have a go at him.’ They dispersed without a murmur. Next morning, I summoned the transport sergeant and told him that he deserved to be charged for his conduct and for inciting his men to assault me, but I was taking no action.  If I did, he would have his demobilisation date put back. My words had immediate effect. Transport was a changed platoon. But I suspect that they still thought their name for me that night was a perfect description.

I was summoned to see Colonel Horsfall who asked if I would like a career in the army. He wished to recommend me for an immediate commission with the rank of lieutenant quartermaster, if, when asked, I would sign up for an extra year. I was flattered. As I loved soldiering, I agreed. He said it might take a little time to sort out. It was a great opportunity. I was only 26, roughly 10 years younger than an average regimental quartermaster.

A few days later, the RSM and the RQMS both went home for demobilisation. George Charnick was promoted to RSM and I to RQMS.  I spoke to the former RQMS before he left. I knew he had made a bit of money.

‘How well did you do?’ he asked nonchalantly, “I managed to get 4,000 home.’

‘Lire?’ I asked

 ‘No! Pounds,’ he said.

 I had a debit balance with the paymaster, not a surplus. Not all colour sergeants were rogues.”