“I soon settled down in my new position which made me responsible for the clothing, food, equipment, quartering and arms of the battalion. Delegation was the key and helping me were NCOs and men who were specialists in their skilled jobs. George Charnick also delegated many tasks to me and I started to act as RSM at battalion orders and in the HQ guard mounting. Inspecting the meticulously-turned out guard as the pipers’ wonderful tunes were being played and again as they marched off was the thrill of my life. On several occasions, Colonel Horsfall hid behind some bushes overlooking the parade. One morning, he said to Rodney Cockburn: ‘He should be an RSM’.
I lived in a large room in a nearby hotel which was a short walk from the sergeants’ and WO’s mess. CSM Byrne was now its president. We employed a Hungarian band from among the thousands of their troops that had surrendered to us. They gave their services free and we provided food, drink and transport. I had a Hungarian lieutenant as a German interpreter while I was at HQ Company. My duties at the time included commandeering woodland which was felled and dispatched to Vienna as fuel. One day, the pioneers blew down a large tree instead of felling it. I considered it was too dangerous and forbade the practice. Another day, a party felled a tree which rolled down the side of the mountain, across two roads and the railway track and plunged into the lake. It was a miracle that neither trains nor vehicles were passing.
Just after Christmas 1945, I was given instructions to arrange to feed hundreds of Polish soldiers returning to their homeland as they stopped each night at Villach Sation. It was a logistical nightmare. I was given my first notice of a train’s arrival time only when it passed through the Tarvisio pass which gave us less than 15 minutes to get ready. Its halt at Villach was timed for 15 minutes before it proceeded to the Czech border. I had a party of cooks from regiments in the brigade and we were all under the staff captain. They agreed with my idea that to open food, when one was not sure it would be consumed, would be a waste. I suggested a bank of soyer stoves in which we could have unopened meat and vegetable stew. We would lay out loaves of bread which would be cut during the short notice and some tinned pudding sweets.
The first night, the train was signalled after midnight and we were all prepared. Every Polish soldier was served with a hot meal and mugs of tea. They were very grateful. They were being conveyed in a cattle trucks and snow lay on the ground. I was complimented by the staff captain for an excellent arrangement. That week, an article was written about me in the brigade newspaper entitled ‘Villach Vapours.’ It was going so well, I asked permission to be excused after losing sleep for about four nights. My duties during the day were particularly onerous as we were preparing for disbandment. That night, General Anders, commander-in-chief of the Polish Division, turned up and, I understand, handed out decorations.
The handing in of battalion stores was crucial to David Aitkenhead, the captain quartermaster. No regiment had its stores absolutely correct as printed in the G1098 booklet. Many items had mysterious names and nobody knew what they actually were. I suggested that he write out a list each day and I would get the storemen to assemble what they had. I would take them to the RASC and ordnance depots and obtain a signature to certify goods had been properly returned. It worked easily. The storemen could not care less at the depots and, each day, I would report back to Aitkenhead with the pages all signed up. He thought I had worked a complicated confidence trick. I wondered afterwards how much of the army’s equipment actually went back to Britain and how much was dumped or sold.
Aitkenhead asked me join him as his WO1 clerk when the battalion was disbanded and he was transferred to the RASC. I refused and also asked Horsfall to release me from my undertaking to re-engage. I told him I had fallen in love and wished to go home to get married. In her letters, Pat had told me how glad she would be to get away from the army and I realised it was the army or her.
Charnick, however, was not ready to go home. He should have left in January and was also a year older than me. Charnick asked Horsfall if he could stay and close down the regiment with me at the end of March. This meant that I performed for a period the duties of RQMS and RSM. One day, Brigadier Scott visited the stores. He greeted me with a broad smile, put his arm round my shoulder and said: ‘Hello Rosie. Can you help me to find a good batman?’ I was amazed. He must have known my nickname from when he was battalion commander. Scott soon was promoted to general.
The respect shown to me by all the officers was apparent when we met. I would throw up a salute which they returned smartly. Majors and above would say: ‘Morning Rosie’. Junior officers called me RQ. The name Rosie that I had originally hated had become a badge of honour. Bugle Major Chubb later said the regiment gave two nicknames which stuck and were respected: Rosie for me and Guvnor for Sergeant Major Fraser of the Pioneer Platoon.
Charnick and I said goodbye to those who remained in the battalion. Most of them were to be transferred to Trieste and the 1st Battalion of the London Irish. That night we went back to the sergeants’ mess. We left by train early the next morning. Our route was across the north of Italy, through the Brenner Pass and Austria and into Germany and France. From there, we speedily progressed to Calais. A fast crossing landed us at Dover. From there, we proceeded direct to Aldershot where we were accommodated for the night. The next morning, we were issued with our civvies, our warrants, accumulated pay and our bounty (a gratuity for soldiers being demobilised).
I was still a soldier but released on leave until the end of August 1946. By that time, I would have spent six years ten months in the army instead of the six months which I was originally called up to serve in October 1939. When I joined, I had ideas of being a commissioned officer and probably could have been one. I stayed in the ranks, however, achieving a rank and status beyond my dreams. I had been a ‘Quarter Bloke’ in size and rank. But I became a King’s Warrant Officer and the second most senior non-commissioned rank in a battalion of 1,001 men. For quite a lot of the time in Austria, I acted as number one and was treated as such. Rodney Cockburn was to argue later that the two best colour sergeants in the army were Rosie and Roy Prudhoe and that there was little to choose between them. It was my crowded hour of glorious life and I had been lucky to survive.
Although now a civilian, I was unwilling to discard my uniform at once so took a fortnight’s leave of the three or four months owed to me. Dressed as a WO, I enjoyed myself and walked out with Pat. I visited people who had not seen me for many years. I negotiated my return to Hawkes. During the last months in Austria, I had received a letter from Mr Whitfield telling me that my position was open for me upon my discharge. In it, he mentioned that he would be retiring shortly. Quite mistakenly, I thought that the job might involve a position like an accountant or an administrator with some authority connected with my army experience. I was surprised, therefore, when he told me that I would take up the position which I had left in 1939. His post had been filled by Eric Fletcher who had been released from the RAF in which he had been a bomber pilot with commissioned rank. My pay would be £5 per week, far less than I received as RQMS. I had, though, burnt my boats and could not go back. I should have negotiated position and salary before leaving the army. Members of the staff who had been called up after me and had lower age and service group numbers were already back in key positions.
I thought that I was showing originality when I chose my civilian clothes at Aldershot. I discovered that the grey, single-breasted suit I wore put a vast number of ex-soldiers into another sort of uniform. I immediately set about getting a Savile Row suit for as little as possible. I obtained a length of a brown stripe worsted cloth and Jimmie Collie and Cochrane made a suit for me. The beautifully-cut suit I had made for me in 1939 had been given away to Ernie Rizley who had been killed by a bomb on Vining Street during the Blitz.
Pat, after a short leave, went back to South Lambeth depot where she worked as a GWR clerk. Her wages had been topped up by the railway during her service. Like me, she was amazed at the low pay on offer. Friends and relatives who were returning service personnel were appalled by the abysmal salaries in what, before the war, were considered first-class positions in banks, insurance companies and railway offices. Army wages had been poor, but housing was provided and you were paid for skills and for rising in the ranks. Pat and I and come out of the army too late, yet too soon, together with the majority who had served the most.
Pat and I were now engaged and I spent about £40 on a gold ring with three diamonds. We obtained it through a relative and hoped that it was good value. We started to make arrangements for a wedding later in the year. After a short holiday, I reported to Hawkes which was over-run with staff. Their busy days had been when we were away. The army was shrinking. I was back running the ready-to-wear department.
Provided one could get over the shortage of clothing coupons, sales were easily effected. A fly in the ointment was Jimmy Spencer who had been made a kind of shop manager throughout my time away. He treated me and every returned serviceman abominably. Several of us had been senior NCOs and were unused to such behaviour. I never spoke to my soldiers in such a fashion.
Civilian discipline, I discovered, was far worse than that in the army. I had two £1 a week increases in pay. I liked my work but I was dissatisfied. Many of my old officers called in to buy clothes and to inquire about my welfare. Several suggested that I should have a better job. Mr Campbell, the all-England agent for William Hird, the woollen manufacturer, took Tom and me out to lunch and suggested we should start our own business. We had little capital but proposed joining Danny in his building business. He turned us down as we were not skilled craftsmen.
Pat and I were courting seriously but kept our old friendships. One of them was with Pat Newbery. Father Kelly asked him to be the church organist and we would spend evenings manually pumping the old organ while he converted his skills as a pianist to the new instrument.
Pat and I were married at Corpus Christi Church in a nuptial Mass on Saturday, 19 October 1946, seven years, almost to the day, after I joined the London Irish. Pat Newbery played the organ. Danny led the choir and sang a solo: Ave Maria.
At a reception at 31 Arodene Road, about 40 people sat down to a magnificent meal despite the post-war shortages. This was mainly thanks to my mother, a wonderful cook and incredible organiser, who was helped by members of the Phipps family. The evening was a great success. Pat Newbery played the piano and there was a repertoire of operatic arias from Charlie Phipps and other choir members. Uninvited guests joined the party, including Gerry Teague, the former London Irish G Company sergeant.”