Sketch by Jack Chalker




The war was to change my whole life as, alas, I was conscripted on 23 September 1939 to report to the Bridge of Don barracks in Aberdeen, the headquarters of the Gordon Highlander regiment. Training started immediately after being kitted out in full highland dress and trews. The barrack room, bereft of any comfort, just a wood burning stove in the centre of the long room, was a traumatic change from my hitherto style of living. Reveille was at 6.00am, and on parade for P.T. outside in singlet and shorts, rather cold and that year there were early frosts. Breakfast at 8.00am, on parade for drill 9.00am, followed by weapon training and, as was usual then, you were confined to barracks during your six weeks initial training.

Training completed, I, along with nineteen others, were ordered to be on standby for a draft to the Far East. We then had to be kitted out in tropical uniforms but also we were to travel in kilts and full highland dress. However, that winter was very severe and Aberdeen, and most of the country, was snow-bound, so we were sent to Linksfield school hall to await instructions. During this time we were allowed four hours leave per night, reporting back 11.00pm, during which I went home or to a dance - dancing being one of my best loved activities. We remained in this school till the end of November when, suddenly, it was on parade, kitbag, rifle and full uniform, marched to the station, a distance of 4 or 5 miles, embarked straight away and off on the journey to Dover. Not very pleasant, rather cramped and a long tiresome journey, sitting on a kitbag and no refreshments. We seemed to be travelling all day and all night, stopping for long periods on the journey. One has a lot of time to think and my thoughts turned to my childhood. The halcyon days they were, although we did not always appreciate what we had. Whilst at school, and until the age of thirteen, my brothers and sister, along with mother, Aunt Dossie and my father, would spend the six weeks' summer holidays at Newtonhill, my father commuting by train each day, Mondays - Fridays, to Aberdeen and his work. At the start of the holidays, each of us got a new pair of khaki shorts, sandals and T-shirt. The principle being they were to last six weeks. If shorts became holed you just had to wear them that way. As we spent most days at the beach, swimming, climbing rocks, exploring caves, generally we went "bare-footed". One of the favourite pastimes was sliding down a large flat rock sitting on a flat stone. It's a mercy our parents did not see such performances. Many were the skinned knees, feet, arms and legs. Our cure was to go into the sea to cleanse the wounds. "Us kids" were classed as the "townies" by the village children and many were the battles my elder brother and 1 had with the locals.

Ah, and then there were the picnics on to the moor, just outside Newtonhill, always on a Sunday. Well, everyone carried something. Wood for the fire, pans, baskets, rugs, paraffin stove, kettle, teapot, chairs for the three grown ups. Always, will I remember those times. New potatoes cooking in the pot; father's own make of "mealie" puddings, scotch eggs, tomatoes, lettuce out of the garden and the local baker's bread. You can imagine the disappointment when it rained on the selected Sunday. It is a big thing in a child's life. So we picnicked in the house, not the same. Mother used to say "If I hear you say again 'Are we ready to go?' I'll sort you out or your father will".

Then there was the berry picking; watching the local miller working the mill where we bought our oatmeal for the morning porridge. The day that is so clear to me was the day my eldest brother and I returned to the cottage at the end of our day at the beach. We couldn't understand why the front room blinds were down as we associated it with funerals and death.

As was the custom, and the rule, we went round the back and in through the kitchen. Mother, as usual working at the cooking range, said "Uncle Alfie and Auntie Alice are here. You'd better go through and say 'Hello’ to them".

The front room door was shut so we knocked and went in. Well, I doubt if any child in those days (not as it is today) could have been dumb-struck as we were. Uncle Alfie said "These are for you but not for the main roads". He lifted up a sheet that was covering two brand new bicycles and, of course, suitably thanking them, we were desperate to ride them. Neither of us could ride a "bike" and many the tumble we took, but in the end mastered the art. Nobody in the village had such gems, so there were many envious children about. It was a dream come true and were well used. I suppose we really did not appreciate the wonderful holidays at Newtonhill until we returned to school and found most of the children had stayed at home.

That, and many more memories, occupied my thoughts on the journey to Dover.

Arriving tired and dishevelled at Dover after nearly 24 hours sitting in train corridors on one's kit bag, often standing for long stretches, we assembled for roll call and a very welcome mug of tea served by the volunteer ladies and it helped to wash down our hard tack rations.

Later, we mustered to board a small trawler type boat to cross the channel in the darkness of a very cold winter's night. This was to be my first experience of sea-sickness. We were herded on the deck, with our kits as the only seat, and slowly edged our way out of the harbour into the channel.

Then began one of the worst crossings, a very heavy swell, and in less than an hour I was, like many others, hanging over the rails being violently sick. By chance I moved up near the bridge thinking the higher I went I would not feel as if I was dying. Suddenly, a hand on my shoulder, with a voice saying "Here, laddie, get this down you". It was half a mug of brandy and as he appeared to be dressed as a Captain I did my best to drink it. He waited till I had finished then told me to go to the stern and I should feel better. Thanking him, I did and did feel easier, although we were zigzagging all the way, seemingly for hours.


Next Chapter

Foreign Soil



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