Out of the Line

“I was finally discharged and taken to a South African convalescent home, a mansion in the leafy suburbs of Alexandria. The principal greeted our small party and apparently recognised my sense of mischief. She said in mock serious tones: ‘I’ll have no nonsense from you.’ I was popular with the staff as I was different from other senior NCOs. I still looked like a boy and treated all ranks and the native staff with courtesy. We were allowed out for much of the day and I explored Alexandria.

I had to be careful, however, of the garrison military police (MP). On a battalion route march earlier through Alexandria, I saw two MPs who hid behind a vehicle to avoid giving the proper acknowledgement of the battalion. I called another sergeant and challenged the two MPs, one of whom was a sergeant. I could only dress them down as our sergeant had not followed me. Many of our chaps had been charged in Alexandria with failing to salute an officer. The MPs connived at these traps by having a young subaltern walk past soldiers deliberately. The officer should have saluted the heroes who had suffered so much.

I was desperate to get back to the London Irish and was pleased when, after two weeks of luxury, I was posted to the training depot at Fayid on the Suez Canal. Here I received a shock. The depot was in the Middle East Force (MEF). My battalion was in the Central Mediterranean Force (CMF). Getting transferred from the MEF to the CMF was to prove a challenge. The tented depot was full of sergeants and other ranks who apparently were more than happy in the sun. But there were a couple of dozen from the Irish Brigade who wanted to get out. I pestered the officer in charge practically daily to get back to Italy with my Irishmen. Finally, my perseverance paid off and a party from the Irish Brigade and a detachment of various Scottish regiments were transferred to the CMF. We were transported to Port Suez and were embarked once more for Taranto. On the voyage, we heard that General Montgomery had been promoted to Field Marshal.

At Taranto, our party was allowed to leave our kit on the quay and walk out for a few hours. All the men from the Irish Brigade were paraded correctly. Some Scots were accompanying us. Suddenly, a party of the latter appeared and one, shouting imprecations, rushed at me with his rifle butt aimed at my face. Two large Skins threw him to the ground. We placed him under close arrest, put him on the train to the north and locked the compartment door. We slept on the train which arrived at Benevento east of Naples the next morning. When we unlocked the compartment, all were there except the one who had tried to injure me. He had left everything and run away. On questioning the other Scots, we discovered that my attacker had deserted before El Alamein in 1942 and had been in a military prison since. I don’t think he bore me any malice but was not too happy about the prospect of being killed. Assaulting an NCO would have put him back in prison for the rest of the war.

We were transported to another training depot where we were confronted by a massive barracks comprising Nissen huts. Innumerable men were being marched around in platoons to the bark of CSMs and sergeants. I was astounded to see squads of sergeants suffering the same indignities. Dinner was a revelation. I was given a ticket for the sergeants’ mess eating at the fourth sitting and thought of the forward battalions with platoons of 20 often commanded by a corporal. All were infantry sergeants.

Personnel below my rank were to drill each day. I was exempt and had nothing to do. I made a bee-line for the company office and fixed an appointment to see the OC. The next morning, I was marched in to see the major who informed me that I was to stay until posted. Immediate release, however, could be obtained if I volunteered to serve with the Special Boat Service in the Adriatic as a company quartermaster sergeant or, even, as a regimental quartermaster. I thanked him but said I wanted to go back to my own unit. I saluted and left the office.

I inquired about the location of the office which dealt with postings and thumbed a lift there. I found it in a large building in Caserta and was taken to the London Irish section. Here, I was enthusiastically greeted by ORQMS Ryan, an old friend, and his predecessor, who was now a subaltern. He roundly condemned the depot filled with sergeants and immediately set about giving a movement order for myself and my 20 or so Irish Brigade personnel. He took me to the mess for lunch. Returning to the depot, I saw a squad of sergeants from many famous regiments being chivvied on parade by an ungentlemanly sergeant major. They endured this as the alternative was to be posted up the line. I laughed to myself. My group would be out of this soon.

The next morning, I was sent for by the officer in command of the depot who demanded to know who gave me permission to leave the camp. But as I had been posted, I would not be charged. The next day, my little group entrained for another depot near Florence. It was unbelievable that a soldier had to surmount so many obstacles to his loyalty and how easy it was to move about the base areas with nothing but your stripes as authority. How simple it would have been to desert.

Christmas was approaching. I schemed my way out of the Florence depot but first took the opportunity to look round the city and saw the Ponte Vecchio and the River Arno. I found that the battalion’s B Echelon transport unit was close by and joined it. I met Billy Allen, who had been wounded at Point 286 in January 1943. He had returned to the battalion a few weeks before, but there was no place for him and he was awaiting re-posting. The battalion provost sergeant was there. Unlike his predecessors, he was no gentleman. In his cups, he insulted and attempted to hit me. I retaliated by hitting him with a jerrycan and threatened to strike him with my rifle. It was the first time I had been involved in a fight. He apologised when sober.”


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