Collar dogs unleashed
Greg Peck 53B
Day One – Baptism of Fire
My time as one of Arborfield’s inmates began on September 8th 1953. Armed with the travel warrants issued by the Recruiting Office in St. Albans, I betook myself to Luton Railway Station and there met up with another potential victim ( Michael Wilding) whom I had previously seen at the medical fiasco some weeks prior. You know what they say about a misery shared! We scored what was destined to be our last triumph over adversity when we reached Waterloo Station. Where a rather gullible canteen lady in the station buffet was persuaded, on the strength of our travel warrants, that we were “Nashos” being called up to serve our two years and therefore entitled to swill Whitbread’s Pale Ales.
Still glowing from the after-effects of this major triumph, we duly arrived at Wokingham Station and found another six or seven equally apprehensive young lads disembarking from the train, also clutching travel documents and bags or suitcases as though their lives depended on them. The more I think about that first day the better my recall of it, as in ‘seeing’ again, that some of the suitcases were actually carrier-type bags. I had a very small case containing such items as pairs of socks, toothpaste, shaving gear (in pristine condition), and of course underwear. The toothpaste and shaving tackle were the only things that I got to keep; the rest, along with the civvies I wore down there, was parcelled up and sent back to poor old Mum.
A tall, slim Sergeant from a line regiment gathered us around him, and after telling us who he was asked if anyone had a fag and was immediately surrounded by a forest of hands waving packets of sundry brands. I remember he seemed very pleased to take hold of a packet of Capstan Full Strength. As the rest of us started to put our fags away, he said: “I’ll take them all lads; no smoking permitted at AAS other than with the Commandant’s and your parents’ or guardians’ permission”. So a chastened and glum bunch of “sprogs” (recruits) found themselves being bundled into the rear of a Morris 15 cwt (truck) for the journey through the wilds of Berkshire to the portals of AAS Arborfield.
Once through the dreaded front gates we disembarked a short distance from the cookhouse and were then dealt with as regards basic roll call and such by a clerk from HQ Company Office. A small squad of A/Ts (Apprentice Tradesmen) marched past the rather untidy file that we had formed into and sotto voce we heard for the first time the dreaded four-letter word “Jeep”. The rest of the day passed in a frenzy of activity, with kitting-out and allocation of bedding and billets; we eventually linked up with a larger group that had obviously arrived on earlier trains or by other means. My first Army meal was quite memorable for the fact that it was my first ever encounter with curry and hot chilli peppers; the fact that the cook made a very creditable attempt to get as much on my thumb as on my plate was a standout too. Anyone who succumbed to the heat and dropped the plate was grabbed for cookhouse fatigues of course; luckily I was able to hang on to mine.
The latter end of the day and early evening also passed in a blur of activity that encompassed such things as learning how to fold and put away kit. Sew box pleats in denims that were obviously made with covering hippos in mind, and being shown how to clean brass equipment, and “beaze” boots. I had been allocated a bed space in Barrack Room F4 under the auspices of one Corporal Roger TATLER, a rather aloof sort of person with a decidedly upper-crust accent. F4 was the closest billet to the cookhouse and we were chuffed at the advantage that it would give us in getting to the front-end of the queue; how naive was that? Someone had obviously done his homework as to everyone’s height, because it was soon obvious that we were all short in the leg in F4. The National Elf Service personified!
Later that first night, as we sweated over burning toe-caps and flying knife handles, working ceaselessly at the stubborn bumps on our toecaps, the room was called to “Attention!” The Apprentice CSM ( Algy Morton) had descended upon us! We were instructed to: “Stand easy” by our beds until he approached our bed space and then come to attention and name ourselves. As he entered my weeny bit of territory I sprang to attention with all the acquired skill of an ex-Army Cadet and bellowed (well, piped actually) my name and of course ended up with a loud: “Sir!” I was rewarded with a grunt of what I presumed was approval; after a couple of words from me I was asked whereabouts in Australia I was from? Turned out that he and I had lived in fairly close proximity in Victoria during the three years my family had lived there. This, I felt, was a promising start indeed! Then he moved on to the next bed space and the inhabitant thereof came to a sort of attention but never volunteered a word. The App/RSM said: “Give me your name lad!” “Lander” was the response. After a short but pregnant pause the App/RSM snarled: “Lander – what?” Quick as a shot I called out: “Hope and Glory!” This was not a good move! I came to know the blanco room very well that night as I scrubbed it clean!
That first night was also memorable for the fact that the billet “pecking order” was being established. A thickset East-Ender named EVANS was chancing his arm and failed when he tried it out on me. He then made the bad mistake of trying harder with the shortest guy in the room, Bob MALCOLM. After two thumping disasters in short order he gave up on the idea of being the ‘king’ and we settled for a sort of loose democracy.
Thus ended the first day of my extinguished career at AAS Arborfield.
AAS Organisation, Philosophy and Culture
How to explain the concept and actuality of Boys Service to the uninitiated? This is an honest attempt to do so and reveal what life was like at any Army Apprentices School in the few years following World War 2.
I suppose that most people are familiar with the concept of recruits of both sexes being inducted into a military career via a ‘Boot Camp’, this scenario being portrayed in many films. The “break them down and rebuild them our way” method in which recruits are taken apart, as it were, and moulded in the fashion that the military demands were fairly common to all military training centres. For normal recruits, usually aged from 18 years upwards, this period of Basic Training – admittedly strenuous, demanding and very hard on the participants – lasts 3 to 4 months and relaxes somewhat when completed, at which point life returns to a more natural pace.
This relatively brief period of basic training did not apply to Boy Entrants or Army Apprentices inducted into one of the three Army Apprentices Schools then extant – Arborfield, Chepstow (Beachley), and Harrogate. These youngsters, for the most part around 15 years of age, during their three to three-and-a-half years of training were subjected to, certainly in the decades immediately following WW2, the unrelenting pressure and harsh Boot Camp style discipline on a daily basis. This daily routine, coupled with the usual requirements in respect of military aptitude, was considered necessary as part of the grand plan to qualify us in both trade and education to certain desired standards.
The Army Apprentice/Boy Soldier of the era was the lowest form of khaki-clad life, a fact constantly made evident when even App/RSMs had to defer to fully trained Private soldiers on the Permanent Staff.
In many Institutions where large numbers of youngsters, graduated according to age and seniority, are kept together for long periods, a culture develops that invariably accords privilege to the inhabitants based on seniority. Rigid rules applied and were ruthlessly enforced by the boys themselves. The most visible manifestation of this culture of privilege by degree of seniority was the noble art of “Jipping”. The name given to a complex but well understood activity that took place in any queue that formed for services within the AAS. e.g. Meals at the Cookhouse, weekday NAAFI breaks, the NAAFI Canteen, and entry into the Camp cinema.
Regardless of the initial format of the line being formed, within five minutes or so it had assumed the designation of Senior Division at the front with each of the other Divisions from 5 down to the absolute “Jeeps” of HQ Division in strict numerical order behind them. No matter how late their arrival, members of each Division simply went as far along the line as their relative seniority permitted them to go. Not a good idea to progress beyond that of course, so a thorough knowledge of those senior to you was an essential prerequisite for continued good health. So essentially, you bypassed anyone in any queue that was your inferior by Division, in turn you were “Jipped” by anyone your senior by Division. Everyone did it, or fell victim to it, according to one’s Divisional status at any given time at AAS. The more “Juniority” you had, the longer you waited!
With the pecking order between Apprentices being hierarchical on a ‘time served’ basis and very rigidly enforced against any transgressor/s, the appointment from Division 3 upwards of Apprentice NCOs was an added complication to the caste system at the Schools. How this worked out in practice was thus: Apprentice NCOs of any Division were accorded the privilege of rank in so far as they were obeyed when on parade and so forth. As NCOs they had the power to prefer disciplinary charges against other Apprentices and used these powers as and when necessary. However, it was not wise for them to use them too flagrantly against intakes senior to themselves as this, if it were seen to be provocative or habitual, could result in the administration of a painful lesson.
To cite one example I personally witnessed, an Apprentice Lance Corporal had annoyed some Seniors by harassing them unnecessarily. As a consequence, late on a Wednesday (sports) afternoon a “posse” grabbed him and he was then tossed in a blanket. As he reached a goodly height above Terra Firma one of the tossers called out: “Tea up!” The blanket was dropped, Newton’s Law kicked in and as a result of an “Oomeguli” type landing a rather subdued Apprentice NCO was nursing a broken collar bone and a badly wrenched wrist – wisely he failed to report the incident.
Collaring a “Jeep” as a fetch-and-carry man was a common practise by Seniors, so that any trip to the canteen at night was fraught with the hazard of getting lumbered with fetching food or drink back for others. That was not often a problem in HQ Division though, as the demands on them with nightly full kit layout inspections, coupled with the need to maintain boots and brasses at the highest levels of glitter, and webbing well blanco-ed, left little or no time for meandering down to the NAAFI Canteen.
Training at the School was organised into six-month long semesters, the first being HQ Division, with subsequent ones being numbered from 2 to 6. For the first six months of Boys Service in HQ Division, no egress from camp for ‘recreational’ purposes was permitted to the initiate Apprentices. Every waking moment, seven days a week, was given over to the demands of the establishment, the only relief being for those lucky enough to have been selected for a representative sport.
Days in HQ Division were given over to learning Drill movements on the regimental square, classroom lessons in the 3-Rs, and in the workshops acquiring basic fitting skills. Every night the barrack room floor had to be “bumpered” vigorously in order to maintain a highly polished sheen on the wood. The “bumper” was a very heavy iron tool that had a fine short-bristle base attached to a swing-through wooden handle allowing it to be swung left and right as it was worked across the floor. Every evening there was at least one full-kit layout inspection conducted by the room NCO – kit had to be immaculate, or highly “grovel” as the vernacular had it!
Three uniforms were issued to each Apprentice – best SD for special parades and occasions, second SD for every day use, and denim order for use in the workshops. Best uniform had to be in an immaculate state, ready to be donned at a moment’s notice. Second uniform had to be almost as good because scruffiness was not tolerated – hence the barrack room irons were well used! Boots, two pairs, had to have a mirror finish front and back – this alone required at least 30 to 40 minutes work every evening just to repair the ravages of the day’s wear.
Although the weekends did in fact have some “free” time once these requirements were out of the way, most of the lads were busy with irons, whitening, Blanco, Brasso and boot polish, bringing their kit up to a suitably “grovel” standard in readiness for the coming week. This too was the time officially set aside for letters to be written home, usually full of pleas to parents to send the incredibly popular “food parcels”. Apprentices lucky enough to receive such were deemed very worthy individuals and always accorded great respect on the off chance that another one might eventuate in due course
Every Saturday evening the gymnasium became The Camp cinema; a welcome break too. The most popular features of these shows were the cartoons, particularly the Tom and Gerry ones, in which the sight of the producer’s name – Fred Quimby – never failed to elicit a roar of approbation from the seated horde. Another odd thing that occurred during film shows was that inevitably, someone, somewhere in the audience would loudly call out: “Eeeyowww!” The whole audience would then bellow out: “CLINK” as loud as they could. The story behind this eluded me but I seem to recall that the ‘Clink’ referred to was a tall, gangly, ginger-haired bloke somewhat senior to me by Division. Does someone out there have the answer to this mystery? Every three out of four Sunday mornings there was a compulsory Church Parade. The gymnasium on these occasions became the venue in which, following the Parade, a service was conducted and long waffling sermon delivered by our overweight C of E Padre.
Quite literally, for all intents and purposes the confines of the Camp became your whole world because, as a HQ Division “Jeep”, you were not allowed out of camp at all other than under exceptional circumstances. This privilege came later as you progressed up through the Divisions.
The “Short Termers” – Some Great Escapes
It behoves me to mention in passing some of the antics that were pulled by those amongst us that wished to “work their ticket”, thus being returned to their erstwhile civilian existences as being ‘surplus to requirement’ at AAS. Let me qualify this by pointing out that, although the majority of these malcontents were from the group that had been inducted because a Magistrate had given them a choice of HM Forces or time served at a Borstal Institution, this is not a reflection on that group’s failings. Far from it, the vast majority of them turned into excellent soldiers, great mates and terrific companions. As a general rule, the malcontents were regulars on punishment parades and Jankers of course, so that by the time they pulled their “Coup de Force” they were already marked down as “Dodgy”.
The first one that I actually saw in action was enacted whilst the evening repast was being endured. It was not uncommon to see A/Ts take meals out of the cookhouse and back to the billets, particularly during the ‘flu season. This was because the MO would hand out chitties for bed down in barracks for a prescribed number of days; the norm was a C4. The bloke then had to get an offsider to bring him his meals back to his bedside.
Thus nobody took much notice of the perpetrator until, instead of going to the billets, he went across the road in the general direction of the Band Room. Next thing we know there is a major flap on with the Orderly Sergeant, Orderly Officer, (Provost Sergeant) “Fred the Dread” (Silvers), (RSM) Tara McNally and sundry other Permanent Staff all hovering several inches off the floor, so to speak. Matey had climbed to the top of the water tower, no mean feat encumbered with full mugs and plates etc, and was sitting there with his feet dangling over the edge chomping and slurping away at his tucker. Despite all the threats, entreaties and bellowed orders, he sat calmly through the tirades until he was finished eating and then, still calm, had himself a fag. He then gathered up his gear and came back to Terra Firma. Buttonholed immediately by Tara, he replied to the question: “What the Bloody Helldid you think you were doing lad?” By responding, “I fancied a high tea”. He was place in close arrest, whipped off to Netley for psychiatric assessment and quietly Section 8-ed.
Note: An old lag (Ted BLOWERS firstname.lastname@example.org) on the Permanent Staff at AAS has been good enough to point out that I have told the myth rather than the facts in the Water Tower incident (above). As no Apprentices were allowed near the drama I suppose that it was inevitable to see it romanticised. He took part in the unfurling drama and tells it just as it actually was:
“What happened was that (the lad in question was) a chap that everyone believed was trying to work his ticket by declaring he was a Quaker some time prior to the Water Tower incident. We even had a visit from the Quakers to see Colonel Magee. I am privy to that information because at that time I was the Adjutant’s runner and was there.
When the chap climbed the Water Tower there was a flap on, and I was just on my way to catch the bus to go to Wokingham only to find that we were all confined to camp until it was resolved. I said I would assist, and as the Corporal on duty knew me (he) said OK. I climbed to the top where a Corporal BURNE was standing, just with his head and shoulders over the rim, pleading with the lad to come down as he (Corporal BURNE) had a wife and family. I did not take kindly to being unable to go out so told BURNE to go down or get below me, which he did. I got on the Water Tower with the lad, and he said that if I came near him he would jump. I said: “I came up to push you off, so if you’re going to jump, jump or I’m going to push you off”. There was some banter back and forth, then he was scared enough that he started to cry. He wouldn’t come near me but promised he would come down if I went down to the bottom, which I did and he did. He was rushed to the Nick and I went and caught my bus. I really hope that he told someone in authority that he just fancied high tea, it’s a much better story, but he was a very frightened young fellow”.
A brand new Coke machine had been ensconced in the NAAFI Canteen and some bright sparks had discovered that it had no bottom to it. The upshot of this was that one morning the staff found it on its side with the cash drawer wrenched out. The entire School was assembled in the Gym and we were given a real roasting by the Commandant, who confined the whole lot of us to barracks until such time as the guilty ones coughed up. Then he informed us that, as we filed out of the Gym, each one of us would be fingerprinted by the Berkshire Constabulary’s finest. Later that day we heard that three lads had come forward and confessed to the dastardly deed. Promptly awarded 28 days detention they were subsequently discharged al la “Services no longer required”.
Three months later the Police showed up with the evidence of two sets of fingerprints from the cash box of the Coke machine, two other blokes entirely of course, so another two were given the Bum’s rush. So this has to go down as one of the most successful escapes from “Gulag Arborfield” on the basis of sheer volume.
Somewhat lacking in finesse but also a high-volume effort. “Sweeney”, the camp barber, also had the ‘Mufti’ concession and his goodies were kept in a small hut adjacent to his “tonsorium”. One bright Sunday morning the camp was rudely awakened by groups of Permanent Staff clomping around the spiders asking who had acquired blazers, flannels etc, since yesterday? The whole rear end of Sweeney’s hut had been removed and its contents liberated. The perpetrators, three in number, were soon located, as their bed spaces were chocker block with purloined gear sitting there in full view. The usual procedure was followed and we were fewer by three.
An individual effort that comes to mind was a strange one. In our intake we had an East-ender named SMITH. He was a natural soldier if ever there was one – one of the lads that had been “forced” into seeking a military career and destined for big things. He rapidly made App/Corporal and was probably the front-runner for the coveted rank of App/RSM. Then he came back from leave and seemed to have lost the plot. After a week or so back, he went into another billet, knocked on the NCO’s bunk door and when he got no response, kicked the door open, went in, helped himself to some cash on the bedside locker and walked out. The sprogs in the billet told what had happened as soon as their NCO returned and Smith was arrested and given the customary Bum’s rush. Rumour later had it that he had been shacked up with a woman while on leave and had decided that he wanted out! Once again, there was no attempt at subtlety; this was an out and out move for dishonourable discharge as a desired outcome.
The vast majority of us looked on with awe, or amusement and then gritted our teeth and carried on. Such events alleviated the ennui of the daily grind, as did the occasional explosion from the adjacent fireworks factory…!
The pay that we had to subsist on was something of a pittance and was also incremental according to service. Pay for an Apprentice in the early ‘fifties, when I had my turn in the barrel, commenced at seventeen shillings and sixpence a week.* This was increased incrementally as one progressed through the Divisions of course, the snag was that one only received part of it to lavish on yourself. You never saw the sixpence as that was kept to cover “Barrack Damages, whatever they may have been. Of course about one shilling and sixpence to two bob (two shillings) or so a week was spent on such necessary items as cleaning kit. Such things as boot polish, Brasso, dusters, and cakes of Blanco etc; these staple items of absolute priority having a very short life as they were all used in copious amounts daily. Ten shillings was withheld in credit for you and the rest was all yours.
Comment: In 1949 when I enlisted, pay commenced in HQ Division at the rate of 10 shillings and 6-pence a week; 4 shillings was paid in the hand, 6-pence deducted for barrack damages, and 6 shillings withheld in credits to be paid out when going on leave. (George MILLIE). Leave. At the end of each six-months semester, on the glorious day that you went home on leave, your accrued ‘credits’ were paid out to you and you felt as rich as Crosus. Loaded up with all that money you swanned off home and luxuriated in such things as lying in bed every morning, wearing usually forbidden clothes, smoking openly, and even slipping into pubs for a beer or two
- Crosus – a very wealthy king of ancient Lydia in Asia Minor, of the 6th century B.C.; hence, a very rich man.
The very first leave from the AAS was, in my instance at least, a 72-hours pass (rare as rocking horse poo!) that was granted to me because my family’s Prefab had burnt to the ground. My first proper leave was a horse of an entirely different colour! On this occasion I had somewhat more than three shillings and ninepence in my pocket when I arrived home. The whole school had been paid their wages for the duration of the leave and also their accrued credits of ten shillings per week. Nestling in my pocket was more money than I had ever laid claim to in my life before, quite a heady feeling! A fleet of local coaches were utilised to transport the eager mass of affluent A/Ts to either Reading or Wokingham Railway Stations for dispersal to their various leave destinations. The vast majority of us were in uniform, the exceptions being a handful of the more senior lads in approved mufti.
I was travelling for the first time to my family’s new home, one that Mum had paid a deposit on and then put the mortgage in my stepfather’s name, this caused some acrimony many years later. The new place was in Beech Road, near the entry to the ‘Bobbers’ stand at Luton Town Football Club’s ground. I felt many curious eyes upon me as I made my way to the new address; my first thought was to get out of uniform and into civvies again. As soon as I got indoors I passed Mum the ration money that the AAS had provided for the duration of the leave, my younger brother was all eyes at my altered appearance. For the very first time I heard that hateful remark: “Hullo, you on leave, when do you go back”? After a late lunch I caught the bus to Hockwell Ring and visited my old stamping grounds; all my old mates were at work so I left messages to let them know I was home and where to find me. Nothing felt the same to me and I realised that my life was changed forever and there was no going back to what once had been.
Later that evening a significant event occurred to change forever the relationship between my stepfather and me. I was expecting some of my old mates to call and was having a wash in the scullery when Bill Brown, my stepfather, started slapping me ‘playfully’ around the back of my head and taunting me about my supposed boxing prowess. He was around fifteen stone in weight and always accorded a wide berth by his peers, as he was a swaggering bully type of bloke. Entirely without volition, I swung around and with a sweetness I was amazed at in retrospect, slammed my right fist wrist-deep into his solar plexus. He performed an amazingly complex manoeuvre for such a squat bloke; he doubled over, retching, as he flew backwards until his heels hit the step up into the sitting room. At which point he fell backwards and lay there on the carpet like a stunned mullet. A comment by one of the boxing instructors at AAS, Bombardier Davies, ran through my mind, he had said that I had an unusual wallop for one of my size and weight. I weighed in at around seven stone at this time of my life and I was astounded at what I had done, my kid brother had the biggest shit eating grin I had ever seen all over his face and my mother was beside herself. Mr Brown was green around the gills for quite some time after that and strangely subdued too. He never again raised his hand against me until the day, some years later, when he and I fought briefly as a result of an altercation between him and my brother, in which I copped a punch from each as I tried to separate them. As a result of the mess I made of him on that occasion I was persona non grata at home for several years.
The rest of my leave was a pleasant time of late nights and late risings, reunions with friends, plenty of fags and the odd beer from the nearest off license, unfortunately I still showed my extreme youth too clearly to get away with drinking in a pub in civvies. I did chance my arm in uniform twice though and got away with it all right, probably because I went into the dimly lit ‘Snug’ and drank in there rather than in the public bar. The couple of times that I did venture forth in uniform seemed to cause some interest in the members of the opposite sex but I was too naive and inexperienced to pursue the point, besides they were always in pairs and I hadn’t even heard of a ménage a trois at that point in my life!
On several occasions I took someone home on leave with me, sometimes for the whole period, sometimes on a split share basis. In the case of Bob Malcolm, we split between Luton and Perth, where his mother and stepfather then dwelt, at 25 Kinoull Causeway to be precise. How capricious is one’s memory that such a detail should remain pristine while so many names have disappeared into the mists of time? Bob’s stepfather was a fine little man, who worked for the Hydro Electric Authority as a foreman ganger, he permitted us to go with him on a couple of occasions and one unusually fine day we spent a fascinating few hours on the shores of Loch Rannock, with the brooding mountains and the legendary “Giant” forming a brilliant backdrop to a great day. I recall that Bob’s stepfather was a fanatic for the horse racing too, with a constant stream of bets going to the bookies, on one such bet, an “accumulator” he was thrilled to bits and saying that he had won over eight hundred quid. Alas for the best laid plans of mice and men, his bookie had a two hundred and fifty quid limit, so that was all he got. What really upset him though was that he had been risking his winnings on the last two races for absolutely no gain! His wrath over this was awesome and it served to put me off of ever betting on either horses or greyhounds.
Another lad that spent a leave with me was Bob Kessick, his family were still serving themselves and he had nowhere to go for his leave as they were stationed overseas, we had a great time and one of the local girls took something of a shine to him, although it did not survive long once we were back at AAS. I also took one of the Stevens twins on leave with me too; he is laying next to me, on my left, in the ‘B’ Company photo. He was one hell of a ladies’ man and would chat up sheilas at the drop of a hat. I recall one night we were in the Odeon Cinema in Luton and suddenly he nudged me and pointed to the person in the next seat, all I could make out was a head of really long hair. He gave me the thumbs up to indicate that he was about to make a move on it and started to move his arm along the back of the seat towards the intended object of his desires. Suddenly there was an extremely rude word uttered, he recoiled and up stood his intended to reveal that it was a young bloke with shoulder length locks! With another two or three imprecations he took himself off for parts unknown. Bear in mind that this was in 1955 and you will understand that such hair on a bloke was as rare as rocking horse poo! I was having a laughing fit in the meantime, poor old Stevo was most anxious that I never reveal this to anyone and until today I never did, sorry Stevo mate.
Blondie Wright was yet another who shared time on leave with me; he was another great bloke and was similar to Stevo in that he was a live wire for the Sheilas. With the both of them I was often given the unenviable task of amusing the “Woof ” type companion that attractive girls often trot around in the company of. This was not wasted time for me though, as I discovered that looks were not the ultimate bait for attracting the opposite sex, personality was! Having made this startling discovery I put it into practise one sunny afternoon when Blondie and I were out and about in Raynes Park, not far from his home. It worked and for once I had the Belle and poor Blondie got the Dog Watch! To be perfectly frank though, I considered girls as something of an encumbrance in those times and had no intention of tying myself down. A quick fling was fine and that was as far as it went for me, I did meet one girl though that could have done for me in those days. That was Rita, the visiting sister of Beryl Allford, one of my priceless and valued mentors in Luton. Rita was the same age as me and when she kissed me it really blew me away, with her living in Mold though it was never going to get off the ground and let me be brutally honest here, I was far too immature at that time to have been worthy of her. She is a lovely woman to this day. Suffice it to say that there was no such thing as a bad leave, they were all great and such a complete contrast to the daily grind at AAS, small wonder that there were always a couple of absconders at the conclusion of every leave period.
2 Division Onwards
Passing from the lowest of the low when you went from HQ Division into 2 Division was an epic milestone in one’s passage through the AAS. Having someone lower than you in the pecking order that you could actually “Jip” was the absolute giddy end after six months of total obeisance to anything that moved on two legs and wore khaki! The first semester in HQ Division over and the newly acquired status of 2 Division attained, Apprentices were allocated to ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ or ‘D’ Company according to trade for the remainder of their time as an Apprentice. The colour flashes worn under the brass epaulette titles – blue for ‘A’, red for ‘B’, green for ‘C’, and yellow for ‘D’ Company were the first status symbol earned in the tortuous passage through the School’s hierarchy
From this point on, once any allotted Saturday morning parades and fatigues were over and done with, it was permissible to leave the Camp to mingle with real people for a few hours. Before doing so however, one had to parade before the guardroom where the duty provost would check you out for neatness – any real or imagined shortcoming in the standard of turnout meant you had to go away and fix it before re-presenting yourself. It was always a very good idea to commence this procedure a goodly time before the bus that you hoped to catch was due! Little gaggles of uniformed Apprentices would mill about in the lee of the Gymnasium, checking each other out before returning to the guardroom and running the gauntlet for the second or even third time. Wet weather played havoc with plans of course as the whitener used with the suede (Slade-Wallace) belt worn with one’s best Service Dress uniform had a tendency to run when it got soaked. Very rarely did anyone pass muster on the first presentation, although it soon became apparent that if you waited 5 minutes or so behind the Camp gymnasium and then went up again you normally got the nod.
The problem of course with going out in uniform to the nearest towns – Reading and Wokingham in the case of Arborfield – was fraught with risk. You were not only highly visible, but at any given moment while out of camp you could potentially be under the critical scrutiny of Army personnel from any of the many camps scattered throughout the garrison area. There were always Senior NCO’s about, ready to pounce on any infraction; very hard to pick them out when they are dressed in civilian clothes. As a result the slightest infringement of rules of conduct very often attracted immediate and unfortunate consequences. Walking about in Service Dress uniform, unable to get into a pub for a wet was very frustrating, and the local girls too were a tad aloof towards uniformed lads.
The Punishment Fits the Crime?
Punishments for petty “crimes”, usually defined under the auspices of the charge: “Conduct contrary to the prejudice of good order and military discipline”, were dealt with by “Case admonished” if you were going to get away with it. (Blessed words) For the less lucky majority the punishments awarded were usually so many days “Jankers” or CB (confined to Barracks) or alternatively an extra drill (Rodeo) or two might be awarded.
(Corporal of Horse) ‘Donkey’ WILCOX used to be a right pig on Rodeos; he would march the lucky lads through the ploughed section adjacent to the boundary fence at the top of the square and then give you 3 minutes to get back on parade for inspection. To cover this you had to borrow a mate’s best kit and of course the ratbag soon repeated the process, so that there were two sets of best gear you had to work on after the parade was over.
My last two Rodeos were awarded for the heinous crime of smoking without the granting of permission from the Commandant and parent. I duly performed these most unpopular Saturday afternoon two-hour slogs on the drill square and come the third Saturday afternoon I was quietly pressing my No 2 uniform, when suddenly a panting A/T appeared in the billet and informed me that I was to report to Corporal of Horse Wilcox, in best uniform, immediately! I clad myself in best gear in what must have Guinness Book of Records-worthy time and doubled out on to the square. Here I was subjected to a most severe bawling out and informed that I was on a charge for being “Absent from Parade”. I knew better than to argue, so, fuming at the injustice of it and the incompetence of the HQ Company Clerk who had inadvertently printed me in for a third week, I did the “Extra” extra drill.
When, on Monday morning’s defaulters’ parade, I informed the C.O. of what had happened, I was overjoyed to hear the Company Clerk confirm my story in full. Fully expecting to hear the magic words: “Case admonished”, I received a rude awakening to the exigencies of rough Army Justice and logic when I heard the CO state that I was awarded an Extra drill as punishment. My face must have been a study, because the Major, rot his socks, explained that my punishment was for failing to answer my name when the defaulters roll was called at the commencement of the Drill that I should not have been on! Almost fifty years on and I still wonder at that one! So that was four for the price of two so to speak, but it sure as hell cured me of getting caught smoking!
As a 2 Division lad in ‘B’ Company I was placed on a charge by the Room NCO for ‘dumb insolence’ inasmuch as I disobeyed an order to repeat after him that I was a silly Prat. Accused therefore of refusing to answer when spoken to, I was duly awarded seven days CB for this dastardly deed of derring do. I found myself, on the Saturday, seconded to the Sergeants Mess for fatigue (punishment) duty. The big fat Mess Cook Sergeant took me into his kitchen and showed me some very large and very dead chooks and informed me that I was to pluck them, without bruising the flesh and without leaving so much as a single feather to mar his immaculate floor. Having asked me if I had ever plucked a chook before and having been answered truthfully in the negative, he smirked and said that when the chooks were plucked and the last feather disposed of, I was free to go.
The reason for the smirk soon became evident, because a handful of feathers laboriously plucked seemed to expand and fly about all over the place. Realising that I would be there until judgement day at that rate of progress I looked around for inspiration. It came to me as I gazed upon a very large dixie full of simmering water on the central stove, I took the chook I was handling over to it and dunked it for a few seconds. A quick swill under the cold tap to cool it down a tad and I set to. The feathers and the underlying down just fell away at the lightest touch and being wet, they stayed clumped together. What a doddle! Within twenty minutes, I had sorted out the chooks, found a fine sieve to trawl the simmering water clear of the odd feather and bit of chook poo and was ready to go. The feathers I had slipped into the big bins outside, where they would be less obvious. A last quick but thorough check that I had left the place in good order and had hidden every trace of my scurrilous deed and I took off. How very nice to have won one for a change!
Probably the most feared of the Permanent Staff at the AAS, after the RSM “Tara” McNally, was Sergeant Fred Silvers, the “Dread Fred”, a dapper, sallow faced little man of immaculate turnout. His dark green Rifle Brigade beret and grim, mustachioed face was the bane of every Apprentice. Fred and his small staff of Regimental Police or “Provost’s” were the ones who dealt with the Defaulters and pounced on the unwary, they exercised the power of veto over leaving camp area at weekends and carried out arrests within the camp as and when required. Anyone who had drawn either “open” or “close” arrest was entirely at their mercy. Open arrest meant that you had to report to the guardroom at certain intervals during the day and evening, in immaculate order of course. Close arrest meant that you spent the better part of the day and evening in the guardroom cells. Like just about every other A/T, I loathed the sight of an RP armband and wondered what lower form of life there could possibly be? An incident about halfway through my stint at AAS changed my perspective for me.
It was customary, on the night before a passing out parade, for the Seniors to shuffle out on to the square in a “Conga” line and then all the other divisions, in the usual formation, would join on behind them. For fifteen minutes or so we would weave in and out of the barrack block spiders and the square to the chant of “aye aye aye CONGAAA” All good harmless fun! Except for this one occasion, someone from the Seniors’ end of the line changed the chant to “Lets get Johnny French, ah”!! Johnny French was an Apprentice Sergeant and had obviously upset someone rather badly. The Conga line made its way to Johnny French’s barrack room and apparently a very scared young A/T told the leaders of the line that ‘Frenchie’ had heard the chant and shot down to the guardroom for protection. Somehow the mood of the lads had turned ugly, you could feel it, like a current coursing through the line. We were led down to the guardroom where a chant demanding Johnny French began; after a moment or two Fred Silvers appeared in the doorway. Without saying a word, he stood there, Po faced, while we all booed and catcalled. There was no doubt at all that the situation was fraught with risk but he stood there unflinching, then, when we had gradually quietened down to the point where he would be able to make himself heard, he spoke to us. He reminded us that we all hoped to be going on leave in a day or so’s time, failure to quietly disperse would lead to cancellation of leave passes en masse. He said, and by now you could have heard a pin drop, that if we went immediately, he would overlook our unruly behaviour and not press charges on any of us, failure to obey would lead to immediate arrests. At this point his two duty provosts came out on to the verandah next to him. Without a further word, the milling crowd of some 500 or 600 Apprentices shuffled away to their billets. That took some courage I have to tell you, because that number of frustrated and keyed up teenagers could have done some real damage had they gone berserk, it could quite easily have happened too, it was that close!
After the lofty heights of 4 Division-hood were reached, it was possible to apply to be permitted to wear approved “Mufti”, or civilian clothes. This consisted of a blazer sporting the regimental badge, grey flannel trousers, white shirt, regimental tie, black military pattern shoes and grey woollen socks completed this exciting ensemble. As it was as readily identifiable to the hordes of hostile Senior Ranks as full uniform it was not universally popular. The lucky lads of Senior (6) Division were permitted to wear reasonably neat mufti of their own choosing, although still had to pass muster at the guardhouse of course, but what a difference it made to those brief hours away from the confinement of “Stalag Arborfield”.
Our “Cash” and “Baccy” Barons, as they were called, normally consisted of entrepreneurs who worked at some job while on leave and then used the cash thus earned when back in Camp to loan cigarettes or cash at 50% interest, redeemable when Credits were paid prior to the next leave. Each Baron had some Seniors on his payroll to act as enforcers if necessary – rarely was a debt dishonoured – twice. Thus it was that not everyone went home with his “Credits” intact.
In any establishment where juveniles were gathered en masse, bullying or “hazing” often occurred. For the most part it was petty and indiscriminate but occasionally one of the more vicious types amongst the rank and file got stuck into someone and did some damage before they were stopped.
At this point in time in a particularly tragic incident, a fellow named BEAUMONT with whom I had at one time shared a Luton (Denbigh Road) school classroom, and who was a Boy Soldier with the Royal Signals I believe, was so badly beaten that he died from his injuries. This caused a great furore and was personally very sad for me. The beating had been administered because someone from the Boys’ Unit Battalion Office had seen to it that the rest of the group were made aware that it was he who had informed on them for some misdemeanour for which they had been collectively punished.
Part of the “hazing” all Apprentices were subjected to was the occasional nocturnal visit from a group of Senior Apprentices who would enter the billet and then turn over every bed, dumping the occupants unceremoniously on the floor. On my second night at AAS I was witness to something called “Luluing”. One of our number, a case-hardened and cynical youngster from Pompey (Portsmouth) passed a caustic comment when we were jipped in the meal queue, and then compounded the mistake by identifying himself and his billet when asked! Late that night we had a visit from a horde of Seniors – over went every bed, and matey was dragged from the debris of his pit and bound with rope, the end of which, after his ankles had been secured, was passed over one of the exposed roof cross beams. He was hauled up clear of the floor and repeatedly “dunked” in a fire bucket, all this while our room NCO’s bunk door remained firmly closed. As a result of all this there was an unholy mess for us to sort out and rectify – all in the dark! Matey was lucky only to have some minor contusions and scrapes from his ordeal.
The worst bullying that I was involved with occurred while I was in 2 Division. The room NCO was an Apprentice Corporal Dave BULL and he was a huge brute of a bloke, well over six feet tall and built like a brick dunny. He gave us the most miserable time it is possible to imagine, full kit layouts every night and on most occasions he would have the whole room marking time on the kit that he had flung to the floor. He frequently physically manhandled anyone who really sparked his ire, not to hit but to grasp and really shake them hard. I was lucky enough to escape that aspect but more by luck than design I hasten to add, probably because my bedspace was down by the fire door and he had vented the worst of his spleen by the time he reached me. His downfall came about because of a little Jock squaddie on the Permanent Staff who had one stripe and an armful of G-flogs – ration orderly was his function I believe. BULL was being really violent on this particular occasion and had reduced a couple of the lads to blubbering wrecks and our kit to an absolute shambles when suddenly this ancient little Jock Lance-Jack (Lance Corporal) stormed in with a Provost in tow and screamed at BULL: “You are under arrest, you cannot lay hands on men like that.” BULL was placed in close arrest and summarily dealt with by demotion, open arrest and then discharge.
The question needs to be asked, did I ever take part in hazing? Well yes I did indeed. Blondie Wright and I often went around to catch up with our friend Willie Watson, second from right in the centre row of the B Coy photo. Willie was the room NCO for a bunch of 2 Division lads and as a result of a bit of sauce from one of them, we grabbed a bolster apiece and got stuck into them. Of course there were many more of them than us so it was quite a pillow fight, this was great fun and we made it a point to do this at least once a week, Willie was quite happy to let this go on as it was an outlet for his lads and there was no malice in it whatsoever. Blondie and I got into some bother as a result of one of Willie’s lads getting into strife in ‘A’ Company’s lines. As the weather was somewhat inclement, this silly lad made the cardinal error of passing through the ‘A’ Company spider in order to avoid some of the rain as he made his way to the NAAFI Canteen. A Senior lad would have got away with it but not a sprog, he was immediately bailed up by a Lance-jack in ‘A’ Company’s 3 Division, he was a very upset young sprog when he got back to Willie’s barrack room, having been made to double on the spot for ten minutes and then placed on a charge by this friendly boy NCO. He had been getting something for Willie and the delay had annoyed Willie, so Blondie and I, Blondie being a 5 Division Lance-jack, wandered down to ‘A’ Company lines to ask this bloke to drop the charge that he had put the lad on for insolence. The cheeky sod got right up us, so I belted him in the guts and Blondie kicked his backside. We were both charged for this and had to front the CO of ‘B’ Company, a rather nice bloke from a Scottish line Regiment, he listened to our explanation and then “Pop” our benevolent CSM, (from the Devons I believe he was) said to the Major that he felt our standing up for the younger lads was not a criminal act but quite laudable! As a result we were told not to make a habit of it and given “Case admonished”, so no punishment of any sort ensued. A word to the ‘A’ Company prat from a handful of 5 Division lads from ‘A’ Company saw that worthy pull his head right in. That was the only time I recall that I laid hands on a junior bloke throughout my time at AAS, I would do the same again today were the circumstances repeated, power mad little “Hitlers” are a pet hate of mine.
Occasionally a sprog would aggravate one of the Senior Division bods and it was fairly normal for a “Kangaroo Court” to be convened in the Seniors’ billet, the normal “Punishment” was for the sprog to have to run a gauntlet of bolster-swinging Seniors, or perhaps push a polish tin the length of the billet with his nose. I have heard of some cruel variations on this but I never saw such, certainly neither I nor any of the blokes in my billet would have condoned or participated in any potentially dangerous hazing. Another venture that all of us took part in was the occasional airing of the sprogs beds, while they were still in them of course. This was something that had been meted out to us as sprogs and as Seniors we in turn did it to others, it was traditional to do it on the odd rare occasion. ‘B’ Company at that time, especially when I was a Senior, seemed to be a pretty happy collection of fellows without any vicious sorts lurking amongst our number and I am totally unaware of anyone being hurt during the odd depredation that we carried out.
Life within our restricted and hierarchical world could be leavened somewhat if a person was good at sport. One way of alleviating some of the restrictions that were endemic to life at an Army Apprentice School was to join one of the team sports groups such as Soccer, Cricket, Rugby, Athletics or, of course, Boxing. Participants in these activities got to travel to other Units for matches, and so too we often entertained sides from other Units. The round robin style competitions betwixt the three Army Apprentices Schools then extant – Arborfield, Chepstow (Beachley) and Harrogate, were always an immensely popular diversion, and the opposition thoroughly booed at every opportunity. Every excuse for getting out of camp was the order of the day for the lads, and training runs for the boxing team were a special delight, even in winter. Likewise, if you became known as one of the sporting elite, there was usually less likelihood of getting bullied or hazed as much by your seniors.
Prior to joining AAS I spent three years at Challney Secondary Modern School in Luton, the thirteenth school I had attended, variously in Australia and the UK. For the modest skill I displayed with boxing gloves in the Gym I was appointed School Boxing Captain – quite meaningless really as the team was formed just three months before my schooling came to an end and, as a consequence, I never had a single bout.
Silly me mentioned this in my résumé of course and as a consequence, on the Monday evening of my second week as a moving target, I was detailed to go to the camp Gymnasium and report to CSMI BROWNING, which I did with the alacrity that all such orders had to be accorded. I went in through the front doors, up some stairs and then out on to the Gym floor that sloped down from the main entry for about a quarter of its length before becoming a normal flat floor, with a raised dais (stage) at the other end. No signs of life at all, just a big empty space flanked with wall bars and some hanging ropes. Hearing a sort of scuffling noise from a doorway down near the dais end of the Gym I knocked and called out that I was A/T PECK reporting as ordered. Out bustled this very fierce looking little man hardly bigger than me, with a real boxers nose; he looked me up and down somewhat dubiously and nodded, and then fished around for two pairs of 16oz training gloves that we then donned.
I was then led into the centre of the Gym and he instructed me to hit him. Thinking that perhaps I had died and gone to heaven I asked him to repeat the order, and as soon as he did, I did! What followed was a blur of exploding leather as the evil little sod pummelled me all round that Gym in a clockwise direction, three times! By my calculation he was hitting me with about 2.5 wallops to every one of mine that I managed to put somewhere halfway useful. At the end of this fast and furious ordeal he told me to stop and said just five words to me: “You’re still standing, you’re in!” I swear I was glowing cherry red from the impacts all over the designated target area, and my legs were very wobbly going up that slope towards the exit as I left.
The following week, after training every evening and getting to know some of the other ‘Punchies’ I was told that I would be seconded to a representative team for ‘C’ Company against another Boys’ Unit in Aldershot.
When the Saturday evening came around the team was taken to the venue by coach, and I was quite kindly given much advice by the more experienced lads. A big blonde pug called ‘Punchy’ SALMON was especially friendly. When we arrived at the Unit’s Gym, I found out to my horror that I was first cab off the rank! Swiftly clad in my ‘gear’ – red PT vest, baggy issue navy blue shorts, grey issue woollen socks and black gym shoes – I was escorted into the ring, probably to stop me from running and hiding I should think! My opponent climbed into the ring and my trepidation increased tenfold, he really looked the goods! Crew-cut hair, boxer’s nose, silk vest with regimental crest, silk shorts with blue piping, sash, proper socks and fair dinkum boxing boots!
The gym was chockers full of home team supporters all baying for my blood and cheering for their bloke as the Ref called us into the centre of the ring and gave us his instructions as to what to do as and if. When the bell went, I slithered into the centre of the ring wishing for an earthquake or some such to come to my rescue. My opponent shot out his left hand and as I had been taught, I slipped and countered, it landed well and he wobbled a bit, so I went for him two handed and suddenly he was down and out. Some twenty odd seconds and it was all over. Funny thing, that was the only fight that our lot won that night, how ridiculous was that? I had earned my ‘bones’ though and the soubriquet ‘Punchy’ was thereafter applied to me too, a sort of verbal badge of acceptance.
Three Burmese lads stick out from my time at AAS, in particular Tin (or Khin) NYUNT, a Senior in the Boxing Team in my day. There was another Burmese bloke who I fought in the ring – he was a tough nut – and after hammering his head for two rounds he caught me with a belter almost as the bell rang for the end of round two. He knocked me diagonally across the width of the ring and really set bells ringing! My second told me I was wasting my time smacking his head; “Go downstairs” were his instructions. As a result of the attention thus lavished on his gut the fight was stopped in my favour halfway through the third.
The other Burmese bloke was in the bedspace next to mine in billet F4 and mistook banter betwixt myself and a wee Scotsman as insults aimed at him for some weird reason. He went troppo and came at me with a knife. Pure reflex took over and I beaned him with the boot I had been beazing – laid him out like a carpet. For this callous act of thoughtless self-preservation I received a bollocking from Roger TATLER, the Room NCO. He claimed that I had damaged the relationship between Burma and England – as if! I did get a slight smile from him when I asked if it would be OK to do a re-run and die for the cause? Not as dramatic as it sounds though, as the knife he was lunging with was a standard issue eating iron, and therefore more suited to beating someone to death rather than stabbing them.
Places of Interest and Amusement.
A couple of kilometres from the back entry to our military complex, which also contained the Medical Reception Station (MRS) for Arborfield Garrison was a holiday tourist attraction called “California”. Among its varied attractions was a speedway circuit. Once permitted egress from the Camp, many an afternoon over the weekends was spent in that (to us) idyllic situation, as entry was cheap it was much appreciated and nobody caused any mischief there to spoil it for ourselves.
Another place of interest was the Fireworks Factory that was on the other side of the narrow lane running parallel to the fence near the top end of the drill square. This was because it would go off with a bang from time to time; on one memorable occasion so big was the explosion that it threw me off my bed and caused a mushroom cloud of magnificent proportion and colour. Some of our lads scaled the two fences involved and were busy finding body parts from the six fatalities of that one. That aspect of it was not at all pretty!
At Dead of Night – ‘B’ Coy lines, 4 Division, 53B Intake
Lights out had sounded some twenty minutes or so previously and the soft burring of snores permeated the billet. Figuring that all were asleep, Icautiously reached into my bedside locker for the last of my carefully hoarded Woodbine cigarettes and my lighter. This subterfuge was entirelynecessary, as next bed space to mine was the domain of the dreaded SATCHELL. ‘Satchmo’ was a good enough bloke but he had one glaring fault. If he spotted anyone lighting up he would ask for a drag on the fag. Satchmo could turn a pristine Woodbine into a limp and shrunken parody of a fag with one long deep suck, leaving the end all soggy in the process! Watching one’s precious ciggie being reduced in length and content by at least 25% in a single ankle deep drag was a demoralising experience. It was a sort of unwritten rule that the first to ask got a puff, so refusal was not an option as it cut both ways after all.
I very carefully pulled the blankets up over my scone before lighting up, as bringing upon oneself the wrath of a patrolling provost was not a good idea! No sooner had I done so than I heard the sound I dreaded most to hear at that precise moment. An insistent “Pssst!” coming from Satchmo’s pit! With a feeling of utter dismay I leaned over and whispered, in a wailing voice full of agony and despair, “What”? My joy knew no bounds when he replied. “Have you got a light”? He too had saved a ciggie and like me, had stayed awake. Quick as a flash I slithered out of bed and went over to his pit. It was pitch black but the tiny glow from my fag was enough to show me this wee white thing projecting outwardsfrom his face.
Without further ado, I stuck my lit fag against it and the sound of Satchmo’s famous lungs was heard sucking in, then there was a short pause, followed by an almighty shriek that woke the entire billet. The wee white thing I had homed in on had in fact been Satchmo’s little pinky! It took me a full half hour to get over the ensuing fit of the giggles as I listened to the poor sod sucking on his sore pinky and whingeing that I had trod on his fag when he dropped it! Landed on it more like when I recontacted terra firma, after seriously challenging the standing high jump record as a result of his unsolicited scream of agony.
‘In Dock’ – and Relegation.
Relegation was the fate of any Apprentice who for any reason failed to meet the criteria set for each six-months semester in the course of his apprenticeship. Such was to be my fate in 4 Division – the penultimate semester. I had developed haemorrhoids and they slowly got worse until they became prolapsed and infected. I had three spells in Dock (Hospital) with them, the first two at the local Medical Reception Station in Arborfield, the object of which was to shrink them sufficiently to allow them re-entry. The doctors decided that they had to go and I was despatched in due course to Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot. Here I spent another week having the usual unctions and cold compresses applied to my terrified Tuchis, after which the operation was carried out. A few days after the operation, the gauze-wrapped drain tube had to be removed from my ‘harris’, a QARANC (Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps) Nursing Sister arrived to do that and discovered that the plug was becoming very attached to me by virtue of the flesh beginning to heal through and over the gauze. Being a direct-action and no-nonsense type, she sorted this minor setback out by grabbing hold of the end of the pipe and wrenching it out regardless. I passed out and the rest of the ward later told me that even so my yells, curses and threats caused the Sister to flee the ward in tears. I came to with the doctors and nurses gathered around me cleaning up the blood and lymphatic fluid that had gushed forth. This damage to my nether region caused them to delay my release for almost three weeks, making a total of about seven weeks that I had missed from the syllabus of 5 Division. The only visitors I received in that time were my mother and stepfather and the Camp Padre. He informed me that I was to be relegated and repeat 5 Division. Not a word from anyone connected with the boxing team, so that decided me not to bother with going back to that after my release.
I was in the Ward with a collection of Squaddies who had returned from the Korean conflict and who all had required surgery of various sorts prior to their being fit for demob. They all got a bottle of stout per day; I as a boy soldier was excluded from this but they raised such a ruckus that the nurses gave in and served me one as well. They were a great bunch of blokes, some with appendectomies, some who had hernia procedures and one poor soul who had damaged his foreskin so badly on his first night back in Blighty that he had to be circumcised. I believe this is referred to by the Medical fraternity as a “Ball Gladder” operation. The ward was full of laughter and groans of pain; telling jokes to men in sutures was a painful way to have men in stitches. The poor sod with the circumcision had to listen to others tell horny stories designed to get him shrieking too, they never failed to get the desired response from him. They had a thing going with a weekly practical joke that had to be pulled on a member of the nursing staff. They lumbered me with the Matron, a half-colonel with a row of medal ribbons 3 deep. She was a formidable wench and the Staff, from the doctors to the lowliest nurse, were terrified of her. On the Wednesday, when Matron came around with her large entourage in tow, she swept up to the foot of each bed and after a cursory glance at the patients clipboard, asked the patient if they were alright and could she do anything for them? The stock answer of course being: “Good, thank you Ma’am and no thank you”! When she paused by my bed and entered into the ritual rhetoric I stunned everyone by answering: “Yes please, Ma’am”! to the second question. After a short silence Matron moved closer and said: “What can I do for you”? “Please Ma’am” I responded in my most winsome voice, “Could you pick up that cigarette for me?” There was a shocked silence and a lot of glowers from the entourage while Ward Sister looked about ready to kill! “Certainy”! responded Matron in a tone that would have frozen lit candles, then, as she bent forward to pick up the errant ciggy on the immaculate brown lino I tugged gently on the brown cotton I had threaded through the fag. So there was this Doyen of the Hospital pursuing this fag across the floor! She paused after a moment, turned to her appalled hangers-on and said: “I say, this young chap has played a prank on me, haw haw!” at which point the whole pack of sycophants erupted into loud guffaws of laughter. Did that ever make my “Bones” with the blokes in the ward – even the Sister treated me as a human being after that.
T ‘Other End – Senior Division
Having touched, albeit briefly, on the opening salvoes of AAS induction and again briefly looked at some of the antics along the way, it is probably only right to balance this Mémoire by looking fleetingly at the last of days at AAS.
As each intake finally took its allotted turn as Senior Division, the ultimate privilege was bestowed upon them. This was the right to leave Camp at weekends in clothing of their choice; this had to be clean and not too outlandish of course, but who cared?
Returning to Camp at the start of the final semester, many of us were wearing our own civvies for the first time while going to the Guardroom for signing back in. On the bus from Wokingham station we had all been aghast at what one of the returnees was wearing. He had on a “Teddy Boy” outfit, with knee-length drape jacket with velvet collar and skin-tight drainpipe trousers; on his feet he wore “Brothel Creeper” shoes with two-inch thick corrugated soles. As though this wasn’t enough to serve as a death warrant, he had got himself a special haircut – a ‘Mohican’. His flaming red crest of hair was the last thing we saw of him for a day or so as he was marched into a cell, the clanging door of which resounded through the camp like a knell of doom!
Out and About in 6 Division
A typical Saturday evening out in Reading consisted of a slack handful of civvy’s clad senior lads catching the bus outside the main gates and disembarking in Reading near their watering hole of choice. My little group used to get off the bus a stop or three before the main drag and dive into a corner pub that had a wine shop just over the road from it. Here we would lash out on a whisky that cost one shilling and sixpence and a half of mild that cost a tanner. As soon as these were dispatched we shot across the road and all chucked in for a bottle of VP Ruby Port, this was priced under six shillings and with what had gone before, provided us with the requisite impetus and Dutch courage to make a visit to the nearest dance hall. Seldom did the bottle make it past three turns each.
One of the other lads in the billet told us about a Pub in a small side lane off of the main drag that reputedly sold scrumpy cider at a tanner a half pint glass. I believe the Pub was called the Star. Next weekend, with all the skill of dedicated gluggers, we tracked down this Pub in a dingy little laneway and in we went. The Pub lived up to it’s unsavoury facade, being scruffy and turgid inside.
The landlord was a cadaverous and dubious looking character, the only other customer was sort of propped up against the corner of the bar quietly nodding to himself. We tentatively asked mine host if he sold scrumpy cider. His reply was: “Yes I do my dears”. This really reinforced his resemblance to Charles Dickens’ Fagin!
The brew came in a large stone jug with a bung in the top and when poured into the half pint glasses, was almost orange in colour and quite cloudy. Once all the glasses were filled we paid our tanners and cautiously sipped the brew; it was really strong tasting and immediately after swallowing it you felt as though your teeth had been stripped of their coating, every little imperfection seemed to catch on your tongue. It was also very obvious that it was extremely potent too!
About a quarter of the way down our glasses and we began to notice a very unpleasant odour, several of us sniffed loudly and made comment. Up sidled the landlord and said. “That’s only old George in the corner there, he’s had four of what you’m drinking and he’s shat himself.”
Thirty seconds later we were all up on the main road putting as much distance as was possible between us and the Star! Later in the evening three of our number were quite ill and all of us suffered from a form of Delhi belly for three days or so. That scrumpy was a health hazard at best, or fairly toxic at worst! From that day to this I personally have only ever drunk cider that comes out of a recognised, well-branded bottle.
I suppose that every Division had one to varying degrees – I refer now to the bloke who could never master the art of swinging the right arm synchronised to the left leg. As I had been relegated to Pass Out with 54A, I finally encountered one man who could reduce a ‘wooden top’ (Brigade of Guards) Drill Pig to tears; a really nice bloke, a cluey tradesman, but a disaster zone on any sort of parade. Any squad in which he marched resembled a sort of mass audition for people doing a ‘Dick Emery’ type stumble. If you were at the front of the file, you could hear the scuffs, mumbled curses, and whimpers from within the ranks and howls of outrage from whoever was marching us to our destination. Not a pretty sight! We will refer to him as “Q”, for that is the first letter in his name.
On the day that we had to report to the 25-yard butts in order to qualify on the Sten gun, I was at the firing point with a slack handful of others, including “Q”. Instructions came for us to load with a magazine of 28 rounds then, in bursts of three to five rounds, fire at the target to our front. I should mention at this point that the peculiarity of the Sten is that it pulls up and to the right as you fire. “Q” of course depressed the trigger and kept it depressed! After the first four rounds had chipped the bricks on the wall behind the butts, the rest of the rounds began whipping off into the firmament. The Sergeant i/c the range party yelled out: “Qn, cease fire!”
As soon as “Q” heard his name, he began to turn to his right. As he was on the extreme left of the firing party, this caused a mass evacuation. We all abandoned weapons and position and legged it towards the blast proofed exit from the butts, led by our tutor for a few seconds. He, poor chap, fell as he reached the exit and was used as a launching ramp by those of us that had been trailing him. As luck would have it, “Q” had run out of ammo by the time he had completed his right turn, otherwise it would have been very dodgy for any of us over 25 feet tall. You tend to overlook such details though when some prat is letting fly with live ammo!
The Permanent Staff wallah had his sadistic revenge on us for using him so ill just a few days later, when he doubled us around the sports fields and then ushered us into a bomb shelter; a Tear gas grenade was then let off and with us all well winded there was no soft option. This piece of sadism was explained as being “necessary” so as to familiarise us as to what the effects on rioters would be if ever we were called upon to use it?
I shared a billet with “Q” and liked the bloke; he had the next bed space to me and was never usually a ha’porth of trouble. Always the butt of every comedian’s little jape though and many a snide comment was directed his way. He snapped one night without warning. I had dozed off with the usual mickey taking at his expense in full swing and then I was suddenly awoken by a creaking thumping noise, followed by all my webbing cascading around my ears, then down came my steel locker, which fell across my bed. As a 6 Division bloke and a relegatee at that, I was not going to put up with that crap. So I called out for the perpetrator to turn on the light!
I heard the patter of feet towards the switch and as soon as the light came on I was placed right where I could do some real harm. As the blow landed I saw who it was and to this day I regret throwing it. All credit to him, he went down to the MRS at the other end of the camp road and never put the bubble in; four stitches needed in his lip. That was probably my worst moment in AAS; I would not have hurt the bloke for the world had I known it was him.
Strange to relate but despite gaining my marksman’s badge, the only time that I ever fired a weapon again during my Service was when sent from (Middle) Wallop to do a regimental course at Warminster. Such is life at the bottom!
As one would expect in such an establishment as Arborfield AAS, many friendships flourished, some ebbed and waned, and some remained constant, lasting a lifetime in effect! I made many friends, the first was a little nugget of a Scotsman called Bob Malcolm whose bedspace was two up from mine in Barrack room F4. Like me, he was a boxer, both of us being around the same weight, and it came to pass that we had to face each other in the ring. Altogether we had five bouts and the score ran out at three to me and two to him, all of them split decisions. My ambition was to knock him out, the trouble was he was so fast that it was hard to land a solid punch on him; whenever I see a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring the Tasmanian Devil I find myself thinking of him! One of our matches took place in the Wokingham Drill Hall in front of a full house, the place was packed. We had both been scheduled to fight blokes from the Wokingham Boxing Club, when neither of our opponents showed up we were told to put on an exhibition bout – did we ever! The crowd threw silver coins into the ring after the bout was over, “nobbins” was the popular term for that I believe and it was a sign of approbation by the spectators. My prize for winning was 14 bars of scented soap, while wee Bobby got a three tier sponge cake for coming in second, we divided the spoils between us, scoffing the cake in an orgy of cream and crumbs around the back of the Hall.
Although we were the best of mates we managed to have a fight outside the ring too. As my kit was being inspected one night by Roger Tatler, the room NCO, Bob made a snide comment; quick as a flash I responded. Our reward for this piece of tomfoolery was to clean the Blanco Room. As we were starting to scrub the place out Bob started blaming me for our predicament, I said he started the ball rolling so why fix the blame on me? After a short sharp exchange of compliments we were at it hammer and tongs, slipping and sliding all over the floor, punching and swearing away like a pair of fishwives! Without boxing gloves on to hamper me I was doing quite well, when all of a sudden we heard the voice of the App/CSM calling out as to who was making all the racket? We abandoned the scene of the crime immediately, scooting into the adjacent toilets and sitting in traps until all was quiet again. Then we came out, regarded the sight of each other, covered in blood, snot and blanco and burst out laughing. Bob went into a different Company to me but we remained close, even splitting a leave between us, half in Luton and half in Perth. Bob was given a compassionate discharge before his first full year was out, something to do with his mother’s circumstances as a result of injury I believe. Sadly, we lost touch.
Another particular friend during my time in ‘B’ Company was Andrew “Blondie” Wright, a tall slim bloke who was a real Lady Killer! He and I also doubled up on a couple of leaves. His home was in Raynes Park, close to Wimbledon. Blondie’s Dad was a Major in the War Office and a very stern sort of fellow, his Mum was a very sweet lady who was a great cook! Blondie’s sister Ann was a year younger than us and while a nice looking girl, was a bit on the toffee side. I think Blondie and Ann expected me to show interest but I never really looked on her that way. One mealtime Ann was talking about some of the kids in the Sunday School Class that she helped with, mentioning that a couple of the girls were away with Chicken Pox. Her Mother was in the kitchen serving up and over the clatter of crockery and utensils asked Ann to repeat what it was the girls had. After the third time of asking Ann got exasperated and called out “For goodness sake Mum, they have the blasted pox”! I just went into hysterics and had the giggles all through the ensuing meal, very embarassing!
Blondie’s Dad was into home-made wines and on one memorable occasion allowed the pair of us to sample his latest effort, a Parsnip wine, I felt a tad queasy afterwards but daren’t say anything of course. I held everything together until we were about fifteen minutes away from AAS on the coach up from Victoria Bus Station and then up it all came. The driver had me swab it up when we got to AAS, fair enough I suppose!
After all these years I am still in touch with a couple of blokes from way back then but not Blondie.
Passing Out -The Transition Into The Regular Army
Just as HQ Division had been a furious round of activity, so too was Senior Division with Trade Tests to take, Infantry skills to be polished up, and Passing Out Parade drill to practice. We were issued for the first time with battledress (BD) uniforms, replacing the WWI style Service Dress uniforms worn throughout the course of our time at AAS. After the final rush and furore of qualifying for all that the Army required of us to become tradesmen and Soldiers, the Passing Out Parade was a final triumphant moment. Dressed at last in proper battledress uniform as befitting a trained soldier we were ready to face the world. Passing Out was a great thrill to all of us – we had endured all that could be done to us whilst being the lowest form of life in khaki uniform; not only had we survived the worst that could be thrown at us, we had thrived on it! After AAS I can honestly say, and I am sure that others of my ilk would agree, that nothing that life threw at me, with the singular exception of cancer, ever really frightened me again.
Those of us, who passed through the portals of AAS Arborfield, and of our brother Units, became both privileged and special. Forgive us our hubris, those of you who read this account and wonder at us, for we are a proud group of men and that which made us no longer exists in the form that moulded us. To that end we are, indeed, a unique and special breed. That which we experienced is no longer there in quite that format to be sampled by those youngsters who go to today’s equivalent. That ensures that we are singular blokes indeed and we take some pride in that – why should we not?
- For it was neither easily nor cheaply earned!
Greg Peck 53B