“In August, we were granted our first seven days leave. I managed to time mine to attend my brother’s (Danny) marriage. He 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.
After Dan’s wedding, I returned to Wales and a resumption of hard training and remember 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.
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 Corporal Sailor Gordon. 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 Gordon 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 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 10 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 from 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.”