Private makes captain
I was called-up in January 1940 for Army Service. At that time a new Army Medical Corp was established; ‘The 197th Field Ambulance’ in Norfolk.
The following five years were to become full of hair-raising events that helped me retain my ‘Lucky’ tag and become ‘Lucky Sam Purvis’. I must say that the friends I made in England and Scotland, as we wandered from place to place to gain experience, were excellent. I have made many friends in my career and I have always treasured their friendship.
Having been left home for five years, joining the army was no hardship to me. Being one of the first to be called-up at the age of twenty-two years of age, I was able to stand back and pick out all of those colleagues of mine who had left home for the first time. They were at an absolute loss. In many ways I tried to help these chaps (those who wanted to be helped). Army life was quite traumatic for those who were away from home for the first time. Very soon though, they were able to stand up for themselves and give as much as they got. And so, our little unit progressed very quickly. I was selected as an NCO but the event that followed was no credit to me and was to change the rest of my life.
Our first move was to a huge mansion that was only about fifteen miles away. When we arrived we were amazed to find that the owners had moved out and had left all their possessions. I had never stolen anything in my life, but I saw a camera – and I picked it up. I parcelled up the camera and sent it home to my parents. Within minutes, I had written a letter for the same post asking them to send it straight back without opening it.
I went immediately to my Commanding Officer and explained the situation. He put me under house-arrest until the parcel arrived back at the camp. A few days elapsed before the parcel was delivered to me. It had another wrapping of brown paper and it hadn’t been opened. I was marched in front of my CO and I felt very ashamed. I was given seven days detention.
By this time, many of my colleagues were with me. All of them had been charged with stealing something or other. More people were on detention than were free. But still, who was I to criticise?
During my time in detention I had plenty of opportunity to decide what to do if I were to be offered promotion. My decision was; that I would never ever accept promotion in His Majesty’s Forces. I really did feel bad about that decision because I know that I would have made a good NCO and could have made it to the top. However, it was my decision and I would stick to it.
I was released from my detention and within a fortnight I was offered promotion to full corporal. It was usual to be offered one stripe initially. And so I was marched in front of my CO to give my decision. He tried to make me change my mind and he eventually gave up trying. I did make a plea that if ever I requested a transfer – he would grant it. He said that I would have to make such a request in writing. Nine months later, I did write to him, the reason being that a new Parachute Regiment was being formed and I wished to join it. My request was denied and I was told that I would understand later.
Four days after my transfer request the Field Ambulance was at full strength and was due to go abroad. And so, any ideas that I had of doing something else had to be put to one side.
During those last nine months we travelled the length and breadth of Britain with many escapades that only army life can provide. Since being called-up I had met many footballers whom I had played with, and against, in ‘Civvy Street’. One such person was a boyhood hero of mine at Sunderland – Bobby Marshall. I had played two seasons at football and one at cricket with the Field Ambulance. We had a great football team and I was the only professional in it.
In one particular game, I was Skipper of the 197th and I went to toss a coin to start the match, and my opponent said to me; “Hey! You played for Middlesbrough didn’t you? Well, I played for Sunderland.” And then the penny dropped, he was my boyhood hero – an inside forward – whose name I have never forgotten. Strange things happen in army life.
Every side we played seemed to have a number of professionals and it was those times when I still wished that I were still playing football for a living. I really felt that I would have succeeded in making the grade – but it was not to be. Fighting and caring for the sick and dying were to be my main commitments.
I captained every side I played for in His Majesty’s Forces, and most of my professional colleagues were, by then, engaged in war. Enjoyment was one hundred percent – no complaints at all. That was the most pleasant time in my army service and I felt that I had been exonerated from leaving professional football. There too, was an added asset because if I’d continued as a professional footballer, I would have had no wages. Whereas, working for the London Council, I was given a wage, My dad died during my army service and I was able to look after my mam because my wages went to her as my next-of-kin. I was happy to have been able to take care of my mother. My ‘Lucky’ tag was to follow me. The Lord works in mysterious ways.