I had already passed my medical and was waiting for my Calling Up Papers. 'What branch of the army would you like to join?' I was asked, 'None,' I replied trying to be clever. 'You have a choice,' replied the Officer, 'Royal Artillery or the Infantry.' 'Royal Artillery,' I said. 'Full Up,' came the reply, so on the 19th October, 1939, I received my papers to report to the Army Barracks at Colchester.
After only twelve days of marriage, I proceeded to Southtown Station, Gt. Yarmouth and there I met up with about twenty men all around my age, bound for the same destination. We chatted and talked and became acquainted with one another on our journey to Colchester, little did we think what was going to happen to us during the next six years.
On arrival at Colchester railway station, we were met by a regular army sergeant. He must have stood all of five foot tall, a short dapper little man. As he weighed us up and down, I could see that he was thinking to himself 'Gee am I going to have the time of my life sorting you lot out'. A case of "you can break your mother's heart, but you won't break mine”.
After signing all the necessary papers etc. we again were taken to the railway station, boarded a train, and lo and behold landed back in Gt. Yarmouth that same night. We were billeted in No.2 Kent Square, about one hundred yards from where I lived. Of course my next move was to go home and meet up with the wife again. 'You haven't been,' she said, 'You will get yourself in serious trouble.' 'Yes I have and we are billeted in Gt. Yarmouth.' Well this pleased her very much, because as I have said before, we were only married twelve days before my calling up papers came. We did our preliminary drills at York Road Drill Hall, still in civvies, and they issued us with a tin plate, tin bowl, knife, fork and spoon. As the tea hit the bowl, it automatically turned green. One round of fried bread and one sausage. My God I thought we are not going to do a lot of marching on our stomachs on this lot. However, as time rolled on we got used to tile meagre food and with that and army exercises we became very fit men.
We were then moved to a holiday camp in Gorleston, which had been taken over by the Government, and there we were fitted out with our army uniform. My God what a sight we looked! it fitted where it met, then they gave us some equipment to fit together, that was worse still, but eventually after a push and shove, things became a little better and we resigned ourselves to army life. That same little sergeant was still with us and he and his N.C.O.'s were teaching us how to use our rifles, Bren guns and all the infantry weapons needed in warfare.
I thought, 'Well I have to make the best of it while I am in the army,' so my next move was to try and be a good soldier and go out for promotion. The first stripe is always the worst one to get, because you have to be picked out of around five hundred men. I made it and got my first stripe after eight weeks, 'Good,' I thought, 'now I am on my way.' After another five weeks I received my second stripe. Of course this not only gave me preference over my colleagues but also gave me more money per week - Not a lot! but every little helped my wife and myself.
I remember one day while walking round the camp, I met up with a buddy who joined the same day as I did, he had his coat collar up and of course, this is not allowed in the army.
'Jimmy,' I said 'Put your collar down,' using the influence of my two stripes. 'Come on Jock,' he said 'Get off your high horse,' immediately behind me and unbeknown to me, stood tile little Sergeant. 'Corporal, if you don't put that man on a charge, I shall put you on one.' of course I had no other alternative but to put him on a charge. He came up in front of the Company Commander and he received seven days C.B. That was the first time I had put anyone on a charge and he was my best mate. He never did forget that and in later years he treated it as a big joke.
At present, we were called Recruit Company but as our initial training came to a close, we were split up and posted to companies belonging to tile Battalion. I was posted to 'B' Company and was moved to Acle, about eight miles from Gt. Yarmouth.
It was there that the C.O.'s wife, who was very keen on dance music wanted to start an Anny Dance Band. Now in Civvy Street I did a bit of dance band drumming, so after an audition I became a member of the band. This gave me a chance to play at the Officers and Sergeants dances, which means a little more money and also excused duties for the present.
I remember one time I was reading Company Orders and found myself written in as Guard Commander.
Now, previous to this, written on Battalion orders, were 'All members of the dance band shall be excused all duties other than band practice'. I reported to my Sergeant Major that an Officers dance was being held that same night and the answer I got was 'You are Guard Commander and that's that!' So I finished up being Guard Commander. When the truck began picking up the band to play for the dance, the drummer was missing. The sergeant in charge of the band enquired where I was, and immediately had to get a relief for me right away.
Naturally the Sergeant Major was furious with me being relieved and also this made the band late for the dance. The Adjutant found out why the band was late, and the Sergeant Major was put on a charge for disobeying battalion orders.
He was detailed to be in front of the C.O. the next day and he was severely reprimanded for breaking Battalion orders. After that incident he had it in for me and I eventually asked for a transfer from 'B' Company to 'A' Company. My request was granted and I am pleased to say, I was among a bunch of boys from Gt. Yarmouth and that made me feel more at home.
At Gorleston we were on guard on the beaches etc., our armament was scout poles and drill purpose Bren guns, not much to stop an enemy! My own section was stationed on the main Yarmouth to Lowestoft Road and our main duty was to stop all traffic and check Identity Cards etc. Dug outs had to be dug and Guards mounted at night. Tank traps were also dug across the fields in case of a general invasion.
Barbed wire was stretched out across the beaches etc. and mines laid. Stand to's were performed during the night and of course we were visited by the Orderly Officer. His job was to see that we were alert and attending to our duties. Our Company Headquarters was stationed at Gorleston Golf Club and our rations were delivered to us by truck. Our food consisted of mainly stew, and again this was rationed out. To break the monotony, we would fill bottles with water and practice throwing them a certain distance pretending they were Molotov Cock-tails, a form of bomb. The bottle would be filled with petrol, a small piece of cloth in the nozzle of the bottle, set alight and then thrown at the enemy tanks etc. Can you imagine this form of defence trying to stop a tank, but it was early days. This was when the Germans missed the boat in the early forties. If they had carried on across the channel I am sure they would have made it, we had very little to stop them.
It was at Gorleston that I made my first mistake since joining the army. I was now a Lance Corporal and one morning I reported sick. I had bad stomach trouble, so the doctor confined me to the hospital. This was a house the Army had confiscated for this purpose, when in hospital, one must stay there and under no circumstances must you go out, unless you are given permission from the doctor. This was the Thursday before Easter, and my first thought was home a distance of two miles. 'Here goes' so off I went, caught a lift and was welcomed home by my wife.
I was having a pleasant day, when there was a knock on the door, on opening tile door there stood two Military Policemen who arrested me straight away. They bundled me into a truck after saying cheerio to my wife, and I finished up at Battalion Headquarters under close arrest. I thought I must have committed a terrible crime. The next day was Good Friday which meant I lost all my Easter leave, and had to wait till the following Wednesday before I came up m front of my Commanding Officer. My Sergeant Major who was Scottish, as I am, gave me a hard time, believe me. I reckon he thought I had let the side down. I pleaded ignorance to the C.O. and with a stroke of luck I was just reprimanded. This of course left me with my stripe so saving me money, it also made me forget my bad stomach.
On our next move, the Battalion moved to Cambridge, which was further away from home, and I was seeing less of my wife who was by now expecting our first child. Cambridge was a nice place to be stationed and I played at one or two dance halls there, but all good things come to an end, and our next move was to a God forsaken place in Scotland.
Stobbs Camp near Hawick. The snow was up to our knees and we had to fill our billy cans with snow, and melt it on the combustion stove before we could shave in the morning. This camp was used in the First World War to house German P.O.W.'s. Here the dances were few and far between so it was back to normal duties for a while. Strict training and manoeuvres were the call of the day. Night manoeuvres in the snow. Gee what a life, but funnily enough we all felt fit and looked well.
We were there for about two months and there is very little to write about the place, as a matter of fact it's best forgotten and so our next move was to Blackburn in Lancashire. This was better, the Government had commandeered two cotton mills to house us, and also living in a big city meant there was plenty to do. But then came a disappointment. I had only been there two weeks when I was detailed to attend a small arms course in Hythe. This course lasted six weeks, and when the course finished the Battalion was again on the move to Ross-on-Wyc. So much for my time in Blackburn.
Ross was a nice quiet sort of a town, so much so that we did not know there was a war on. Again we were in strict training and by now we were beginning to look like soldiers, getting used to the weapons, route marches night manoeuvres, etc. Entertainment and dances were getting scarcer and scarcer and then things started to buzz.
We were issued with Tropical Kit and everyone thought this is it. We were given one week's embarkation leave, but the move was cancelled. After about four weeks we were given an-other week's leave, and again the move this was cancelled. We all thought, 'What's going on?' After three weeks, another week's embarkation leave and finally on return to Ross, we were detailed to prepare for overseas. 'Where to, God only knows!'
The next day we were entrained and bound for Liverpool, we thought 'This is it,' and still could not believe it as we climbed the gangway onto the troop ship, the Royal Mail Steamer Andes. We began to realise what was happening when they let the ropes go, and we began leaving the pier at Liverpool. Here we were, all kitted out with tropical kit, fully trained and ready to meet the enemy, and did not have a clue where we were bound for, and consequently looked extremely apprehensive indeed. We were shown to our quarters which included bunk beds. Meals were eaten standing at tables, listening to the throbbing of the engines, smelling the oil arid feeling the heat in the confined space of a troop ship. We were on our way.
The food on the ship was much better than we were having on shore and this was very surprising indeed, mind you the cooks on ship knew exactly how to cook food, whereas the cooks in the army wasted more food through lack of experience no doubt.
We still did our training on the ship and especially our physical exercises first thing in the morning. This sort of thing kept us very fit and also kept our minds away from the thought of what was ahead of us.
It was no good trying to find out from our officers where we were bound, they knew as much as we did, so it was a case of soldiering on and hoping for the best.
We did not know what to expect as we set sail, good sailors or bad sailors, we were all land lubbers and thought the least little swell would make us sea sick, but fortunately we had calm seas, so there was very little sea sickness about. Time did drag quite a bit, hence a game of cards and a game of Housey became very regular, at the top of one's thoughts was home and the family.
Already we were getting homesick, we had only left the quay! You must remember that our average age was twenty-one, and not knowing where we were bound made us all very apprehensive. Also leaving our families at such an early age did not help!