From Lowestoft to Haverfordwest

“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 dis-infested. 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 Randolph Starkey Bart, 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 Albans, 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, 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.”