Day 2

“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 battle dress 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!,’

He did.

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 Irishman. 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 1st 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.