Joining the Irish Brigade

“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 placed 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, 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 Mumford. I was thrilled however to see Oxburgh Hall, the home of the recusant Bellingham family.

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 it 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.

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 120 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 after we had dried off. 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 almost 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. One could almost feel the disappointment of Pierrotti and the other sergeant majors when I returned with my stripes.

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 6ft 6 inches known as Elephant Man. I discovered that all my top front teeth were loose. I reported to the medical officer with the other casualties. His treatment was a quick brush with iodine. I was certain that I would lose those teeth, but kept them all. 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.”