Early years at AAS

By John Johnson

I was three months past my fifteenth birthday and of an independent mind when on 28 August 1956, 1 set out with very little fear or trepidation on a lifetime adventure. It began with a train ride to Brighton, compliments of Her Majesty’s Government. It was a straightforward journey, being on a direct line from Chichester, that ancient of cities. When I arrived at Brighton railway station there were three or four other lads also waiting for the recruiting officer. We made our way to the HM Forces Movements Office on the station, as instructed in our letters. My next clear memory is of being seated in the recruiter’s office and then being duly sworn in together and signing on the dotted line.In retrospect it was somewhat foolish to expect a fifteen-year-old lad to really know enough of life to commit himself to a three-year apprenticeship followed by nine years with the Colours.
So in that short and meaningful ceremony, I signed away twelve years of my life to the service of my country for a starting wage of 31 shillings and sixpence per week, before deductions – an adult decision by a child.
I remember there was a photographer from the local paper and the resultant picture shows the small group of us sitting around a table in the recruiting office, all smiling as if we had won a prize. What the picture does not show is the paper carrier bag jammed behind my back that contained one change of underwear and socks plus washing kit, carefully selected by my father. It was fraudulent to give me shaving gear; I couldn’t raise any more than bum fluff and managed well into my twenties with shaving only every other day.
Leaving home was nothing new having spent some years with my grandmother, up to and after my grandfather’s death, then later a couple of years at a British Army boarding school in Hamm, Germany, when my father’s regiment (The Royal Sussex) was posted to Minden. The school was Windsor School; my schoolhouse was Marlborough House and my house number, MIS. To me, living in similar circumstances to a boarding school held no horrors. Little did I know!
Whether we each received a train ticket to Wokingham in Berkshire or whether it was group ticket I can’t remember. Nonetheless, we all arrived at Wokingham on time. Of my companions, I can only remember Tiny Noble, a chap called Fry, and another called Sugget. Getting off the train in Wokingham, we met up with others who were also going to the apprentices school, amongst which were two old acquaintances from Windsor School, Ralph Wright and Klaus Pennington. I knew the former well, and his brother, Wright minor, as the Housemaster used to say at roll call, as we were Marlborough housemates. It is much easier being in a strange place with people you know, so it was going to be okay. Eventually we were ordered into a typically smelly army three-ton truck that reeked of oil and damp canvas and the short four miles journey to Arborfield began. There was no time to gawk at the countryside as we struggled to keep our balance on a rock hard seat and clutch our personal belongings. It was too noisy to talk and so we sat in silence a watched the hedgerows race away from us through the rear of the covered truck. In any case the countryside looked no different from the countryside in Sussex, which I had left that morning. I was to get to know the road from Wokingham to Arborfield rather intimately in the next three years, from the not so comfortable seats of the local bus service as well as by Shanks’ pony!
Arborfield was the home of the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; the regular army corps that we would all be going to once our three-year apprenticeship was successfully completed. Poperinge Barracks, the REME Depot, was a few hundred yards up the road from the AAS. In reality Arborfield was a village around which a garrison had grown. We rounded the curve where the local watering hole was situated, swept passed the REME Depot on the right and dropped down a gentle slope to the entrance of the AAS, spelled out in full across the arched entrance. This entrance road ran straight ahead through the main part of the camp and out through the playing fields to the back entrance, adjacent to the garrison hospital. Immediately to the left of the main entrance were the guardroom and cells. Next the gymnasium, behind that a playing field and then the permanent staff Sgts’ Mess. A road separated this block of buildings from the first row of roughly U shaped spider blocks. There was a single row of these blocks separated into two sections that constituted A and B Company; they stretched off to the right going slightly uphill. Next came the cookhouse. Behind the cookhouse and separating A and B Coy from the other companies was the square, on which many a happy and unhappy hour was spent. The left side of the camp’s main through road was occupied by administration buildings, company offices, QM’s stores, NAAFI block and Band Room, School HQ, the armoury and then three more company offices, finally followed by the start of the playing fields and an athletics track. The educational classrooms were separated from the accommodation spiders by a road running uphill. After the classrooms the workshops, large steel structures, cool in the summer and achingly cold in the winter months. Thereafter the sports fields and sacred cricket pitch. In three years we were to come to know these fields intimately, as well as the QM’s stores, the cookhouse and the attached boiler-room.
We were assigned to Headquarter Company where the initial training phase would take place, square bashing and other soldier like activities necessary to ensure that one fits into the system. This phase lasted six months, after which we would be detailed off to one of the other four companies, where we would be promoted to ‘Two Division’ and (unofficially) able to bully the new intake. We would spend the remaining two and a half years of our apprenticeship in our appointed companies. My intake was designated 56B, indicating the year and second intake of the year, there being two intakes, January and August, January’s lot were 56A. We were jealous of our intake number and as all boys do, we thought it was superior to any other.
I was a chancy bargain as far as the Army was concerned, having been selected more for my cadet experience and record than my already stated dismal academic abilities. In addition, I was later to discover that more than one of my contemporaries in the AAS had been given an alternative by a juvenile court, ‘The Army or a Borstal Boys detention centre’. So much for the touted selection process! Of what value was I?
The AAS worked on a six division system, beginning with one division (basic training) then progressing every six months to a higher division until reaching Six Division, which was the last six months of one’s apprenticeship. By then many were receiving regular army rates of pay, because of their age. Our apprentice rates were somewhat less. To the rest of the Regular Army we were known as ‘boy soldiers’.
We ‘new boys’ were shown into our barrack’s spider block and put in the charge of an Apprentice Corporal. That is to say that he was an apprentice who held the rank of Cpl in the AAS structure. Anyone not holding an apprentice rank was referred to as A/T, meaning Apprentice Tradesman. The Corporal was to be our guide and mentor for the next six months. One of his first warnings was that smoking was forbidden until the age of sixteen and then only with the written permission of one or both parents. Fortunately for me, at that time I was a non-smoker. Each recruit had an iron bedstead, a bedside mat, chair (was it a chair or a bedside locker?) and six-foot clothing locker. On each bed was a mattress and bedding. Having dropped our meagre belongings on the bed, most of us stretched out on the bare mattress, wondering if we were ever going to be fed.
The Corporal, a wise old man of seventeen or so, ambled into the room and surveyed us motley lot then asked ‘Anyone here from the South of England?’ I was from the South. I was the son of an old soldier. I knew better than to fall into the trap of answering. Of the sixteen roommates, several raised their hands. ‘Good! That means you can easily learn how to make a bed. I will demonstrate and you will all copy me and make your bed exactly as I show you’. From his voice we inferred that he was prejudiced against southerners. As it turned out he was merely parroting something he had been subjected to in his early days. And so he proceeded to show us all how an army bed was to be made up for sleeping in, and how it was to be stripped and boxed every morning. The stripping and boxing – a form of folding everything up to look neat, was done to ensure uniformity and prevent persons from going to bed during the day, or so I thought, and still do. Having successfully made the bed up, the Corporal instructed everyone to follow suit and practise this newest of marshal arts. The person who had laid a previous claim to the bed space was grinning at the thought of having his bed made to perfection by the Corporal. In this he was to be disappointed because the Corporal simply pulled the bed apart and stalked off. So for a good half an hour we made and unmade our beds until the Corporal was reasonably satisfied.
The next activity was eating. Lunch had been kept over for us until after the older hands had eaten. We trooped after the Corporal a few yards to the dining room. The ritual here was to present a meal card, printed with little squares – three per day, which when offered for inspection by the dining room orderly, were scratched or punched out for each corresponding meal. Thus your attendance at meals was recorded and, more importantly, you couldn’t go round twice, thus depriving Her Majesty of expensive victuals. We were to discover later that should your pal be on ‘ticket duty it was very easy to do a double round, if you were particularly hungry and had the requisite constitution. Because there would be no reissue of meal cards, it was advised that they be looked after very carefully. To this end we soon learned that the best protection was to obtain a packing voucher cover from the side of the wooden boxes that clothing and other stores were delivered in to the camp. The voucher cover was in effect a picture framelike piece of tin, open at one end, solid at the back, into which was slipped an envelope containing the details of the shipment within the box. This served to carry and protect the information from the ravages of travel, weather and storage. Likewise it protected our meal cards from damage otherwise inflicted by constant handling and folding, etc.
There’s little to say about the meals, save that none starved or lost unnecessary weight. We had good meals and bad ones. As young men we were perpetually hungry anyway, so no matter how often they could have fed us, we would never have had enough. To supplement your daily ration there was always a trip to the NAAFI, where for a very modest sum one could acquire a simple meal like pie and chips. Payday meant a treat at the NAAFI, if one was prepared to wait in a very long queue. NAAFI is pronounced ‘naffy’, not ‘narfee’, as pointed out by our mentor, the initials mean the Corporal assured us that it stood for ‘No Ambition And Fuck all Interest’. Amusing, but very unfair, seeing that they provided a worldwide service which generally was appreciated and very much missed when the facility was not available.
Having been fed and watered, we were marched (shambled, is a better description) to the Quartermaster’s Store where we were to receive our uniforms and other items. As to the actual clothing received, it is a dim memory now aside from the World War I pattern high collar uniforms and three of everything relating to shirts, underwear, socks and the like. ‘You gets free’, says the store man ’cause you has one on, one in the wash and one in yer locker fer inspections!’ Of the ritual that goes with the issue of equipment I do clearly remember the fact that I and one other had been given the same army number. Those experienced in these things will know that one’s number is of paramount importance. The NUMBER precedes all else in seniority when it comes to filling in names and other personal details. Each of us was called by name and given a slip of paper on which was written the number we had been allocated. We were told to commit it to memory, as it would be required almost every day for the next few days. And so we stood about mumbling the sequences to ourselves in a determined effort to get it off pat before we lost the piece of paper. Clutching the said piece of paper, we filed into the hallowed halls of the QM stores where were seated on a long and uncomfortable bench. We sat silently until the Store man condescended to attend to our needs. The apprentice corporals maintaining a superior attitude as befits wiser heads. As we sat and waited we smiled at the humorous notices pinned high above the issues counter. Of those there I remember only two, which although now known to be older than the hills, were very new to us. The first read ‘We know it doesn’t fit but think of the public expense!’ The second read along the lines that ‘Regardless of rumours to the contrary, there are only two sizes available in the Army. 2 BIG and 2 SMALL!’.
A civilian working in the stores appeared from behind a ceiling high row of storage shelves and having been through this saga a hundred times, he wearily and boringly explained the issue procedure.’I will call out a number from this list,’ he tapped a clipboard on the countertop I you will answer ‘Here!’ if it matches the one in your hand. You will come forward and give me your surname and initials. Then I will issue you your kit. If you know your hat, shoe and collar sizes, tell me when I ask for it.’ And so the waiting began as one by one numbers were called and kit was issued. There were none who didn’t know their shoe size but almost all had no idea of their hat size. The ancient store man was by no means put out at this. He went through a strange ritual, which involved the recruit clenching his fist and placing it knuckles down on a pair of socks between heel and toe.
The heel and toe were then brought together over the back of the hand. Different size socks were tried until the toe and heel of the sock just touched. The store man then called out a number and invariably the cap and beret produced by his sidekick, were a perfect fit. I am unable to explain why it worked, but it surely did.
Then came the time when the number uttered by the store man matched that on the paper slip in my hand. As bidden I stood and began to move forward. Then I noticed that someone else had also stood and called out ‘Here!’ at the same time as I. The store man said ‘Sit down! Check your number carefully, two three four eight seven one oh five!’ I looked at my numbered slip. It read 23487105, so I stood up and said ‘Here!’ So did the other fellow. Are you two idiots? One of you can’t read.’ or something to that effect. He demanded we come forward so that he could look at our slips. That’s when we discovered that we had the same number. The other fellow was alphabetically lower down than I, JONes as opposed to me, JOHnson. In this particular and military way we were allocated our proper numbers, I retained the one in my hand. It must be noted that the store man uttered nary a word of apology. The fact that we were both right and not ‘idiots’ seemed to matter for nothing.
Of course I should have known better. We were the lowest form of life in the hierarchy of the AAS and even lower than the lowliest regular army recruit. Our kind warranted no apologies or kind words of any description. Everyone senior to us, and that was the rest of the apprentice school, were entitled by tradition to supersede us in any queue. Being at or near the front of any line meant that all others in Divisions Two through to Six simply took their place in front of you. They merely walked along the queue prodding persons or asking “Division?” until the answer they got was one of their own or one junior. There they pushed in and waited until someone senior came along and claimed his ” rightful” place in the queue.
Naturally there were protests from amongst the ” new boys”. These were dealt with in a direct manner. Threats, menacing looks and in some cases a sympathetic laugh such as that directed at someone whose intelligence was sadly lacking. The queues were the cookhouse queue, the NAAFI queue and the camp cinema queue. The system was called ” jipping”. The etymology of the word would probably make most interesting reading.
The first six weeks were devoted to foot drill and the care and maintenance of clothing and equipment. As is the Army way, no clothing was ever issued in the form in which it must be maintained. Boots were issued with plain leather soles to which we added a specified number of hobnails in a specific pattern. The large steel nails had truncated cones for heads, which added 3 or 4 mm to one’s height. The purpose of the hobnails was to eliminate wear and tear on the soles of the boots. The heel of each boot being shod with a miniature horseshoe. We all knew that the hobnails were really there to produce a crunching noise, so beloved of sergeant majors, on the gravel of the square and had thus clearly been invented by some past Regimental Sergeant Major, probably from the Guards!
The toe and heel of the boots were pimply and regarded as an anathema to the military eye, for we spent hours with a hot spoon and polish eradicating this leather pox. Once the boots were cured of this dreadful disease we spent more hours with polish, water and cotton wool bringing the treated surface to a glossy mirror like finish. True, the finished effect was beautiful to behold and endeared one to the hierarchy, to say nothing of the envy of friends and foe alike if one achieved a perfect or almost perfect finish. This art was called ‘beezing’.
Each piece of kit was marked with one’s number, yet no provision by way of a predetermined place for that number was provided. The position was determined by the corporal in charge and, no doubt by trial and error over the years by a myriad of corporals before him. The number was inked on with purple dye by means of a large adjustable rubber stamp like the adjustable date stamps used in an office. If the ink found its way onto one’s fingers, it took days to remove. Boots were laboriously marked with a set of steel stamps. Webbing, that collection of canvas belts and straps designed by an octopus for the express purpose of deviant physical thrills, was also issued in an untreated state. It was necessary to scrub it almost white and then apply several very light layers of a tinned paste called ‘Blanco Buff 6V. I have no idea why it was so called, or even if Buff 60 or 62 existed in the army’s inventory.
Where there is webbing, there are brasses. Brass badges, shoulder plates, buckles, brass tabs and runners. In addition, the tunics (best and working), greatcoats and caps all had brass buttons of varying sizes. These all had to be polished to a smooth bright shine. Woe betided anyone whose fingerprints marred the expected finish. A little help was forthcoming here from a device known as a button stick (which itself was made of brass and had to be cleaned and presented for inspection!).
The parade belt was made of buckskin leather, some three or four millimetres thick. The buckle was of heavy brass, in two pieces and very large. The belt required whitening in such a manner that no cracks were visible in the finished surface. At the same time the buckle had to be brilliantly polished, no cleaning agent visible in the intricacies of the cast badge that adorned the belt buckle. The latter job meant sacrificing a toothbrush.
In all of the above cases of spit and shine, the military neglected to provide the wherewithal to do the job. This was a sacrifice made from one’s own pocket. Therefore, a certain amount of expenditure was incurred from the meagre pay of the time. Having established a circle of friends, it was customary to share in certain commodities, such as the tin of Brasso, the tin of Glitter (which was a tin of tightly packed cotton wool soaked in a brass cleaning polish) and Blanco.
Ironing was an acquired skill. One iron per barrack room (15 to16 persons to a room), no thermostat, and in the charge of the room corporal. Inevitably, when the iron was needed most, the corporal was nowhere to be seen.
The placement and sharpness of creases was of paramount importance. Any deviation from the norm was viewed as akin to unspeakable filth of mind and body. As indeed was being unshaven, unwashed and having a button undone when in uniform. The latter being the most heinous of crimes. In the latter case, the standard admonition was ‘Are you a practising nudist?’
Being the son of a serving soldier and having spent some years as an army cadet, I was already adept at the spit and polishing skills, having learnt from my father and honed those skills on my army cadet equipment. I was one among a few who were never penalised in any way for dirty kit at any time during my apprenticeship. I did suffer the twisted humour of an apprentice corporal when he considered that as my clothes and webbing couldn’t be faulted, decided that a sock was improperly darned and ordered me to throw my boots out of the room window onto the wet and muddy lawn outside. As an aside, the corporal when inspecting socks would pose the question ‘Where has the wool gone what belongs in this ‘ere ‘ole?’ Whatever answer was given always failed to satisfy him. To this day I have no idea where the wool what belongs in this ‘ere ‘ole’, goes to! The normal retribution for unsavoury webbing was for the owner to mark time on the offending webbing while wearing his best boots. Bear in mind that our boots were studded with heavy-duty hobnails. The result of this measure was to add many waking hours to one’s day in reparational labour.
Aside from having to press uniform with razor-sharp creases, particular attention had to pay to the brassware that adorned the WWI pattern uniform. The front was fitted with brass buttons, each held in place by a large split ring. Each shoulder strap was kept in place by a small brass button with each strap carried brass lettering that spelled out ARMY APPRENTICES SCHOOL. This in turn was backed with a ladder like brass strip and a long brass split pin, to pin the logo to the shoulder strap. Cap badges were also made of brass and required a great deal of attention with a toothbrush, as did all brass buttons if they were to pass muster at inspections. No dried speck of brass polish was ever to be seen. This included the back of the badge and any other brassware of which the back could be dealt with.
Anyone having been in uniform knows full well the inordinate time taken to prepare even the meanest of webbing for a close inspection. However well one applies oneself to the task, someone somehow will find fault. Our daily wear belt was the standard web belt with its brass two-piece buckle, two runners and two buckles on the back.
To thoroughly clean these rear buckles, we devised the method of sawing through the crosspiece of the buckle, where it was normal hidden from sight by the loop of canvas that fixed it to the belt. In this manner we cleaned the whole thing without getting brass polish on the webbing, where it would stain the canvas if one was not careful, or dirty the blancoed finish. As for the dress belt of buckskin, we had to whiten this to perfection and yet not have so many layers of whitening that it cracked the moment it was lifted from the table. The method handed down over the years was to scrub it clean and apply a one or two thin coats to the front surface and top and bottom edges. ‘Slashing’ the belt solved this problem. This meant cutting the stitching of the belt in such a way that the two halves of the buckle could be completely removed from the belt. When the brasses and ‘slashed’ belt were assembled, the belt was held together only by the runners, which if they moved outward during drill and marching, would oten lead to a belt end unhooking itself, causing the belt to droop and one or both parts of the buckle and even the belt to fall to the ground. Many a buckle and the odd belt has been gleefully trodden into the parade square by a platoon of young soldiers whose sudden enthusiasm for crashing their boots resoundly into the square, came as a surprise to the squad NCO.
We learnt that IE meant ‘Interior Economy’, where we had to scrape the polish off of the pineboard floors with knives and old razor blades and then re-polish them. The floor was made up of three sections, all three running the length of the barrack room. The centre section comprised narrow well-finished floorboards and were trodden on with care. The outer sections comprised rougher planed pine boards which were stained black with Zebo Grate Polish and then floor polish and then buffed to a deep glow. The buffing was achieved with a rectangular block of heavy steel fixed to a swivel handle. The underside of the steel block was fitted with a shorthaired stiff bristled brush. With this device we polished the floor, an activity called ‘bumping the floor’. The bumper was pushed forward and dragged backwards over the floor until the required sheen was obtained. We did this by having a lighter person stand on the bumper’s head and two others pull it about. When the hardest part was done, the person on ‘duty bumper’ would stoop down and grip the handle toward the lower end so that the handle passed up his side and under the arms close to the armpit. In this manner he swung the bumper from side to side and induced a better shine, then the normal push-pull exercise followed by a piece of filched blanket to get a really good shine. This was very labour intensive, but it did produce the best results.
We also learnt to develop a sharpness of the eye that could detect microscopic particles of dust on radiators, window sills and even the beams above our heads (there being no ceilings in the barrack rooms); to clean windows with spit and old newspapers (to this day probably the best method). We learnt that to be really smart and well turned out in all respects was to be, in AAS terminology, ‘grovel’, that the little circles made by cloth and cotton wool when beezing was called, not unnaturally, ‘beezing rings’. Therefore it was with great delight that the room corporal always sent at least one new apprentice to the NAAFI with strict instructions to get a tin of ‘size One beezing rings’.
We honed our time and motion skills so that we could lay a bed until the very last moment and yet be on parade neat as a pin at the desired time. This skill will ever elude the ordinary civilian. Unfortunately there were among us two or three whose ability to acquire these new skills was somehow impaired. They were mostly academically fit, for even the ‘Borstal Boys’ had to pass the entrance exam and physical. Nevertheless, I recall one lad who never mastered the art of beezing or looking smart. He suffered untold agonies of rebuke from all and sundry because one man’s idleness, lack of ability or simple ineptitude, let down the whole room. The youngster just mentioned was entirely uncoordinated and forever late, never properly dressed when it mattered and whose time management was off key all of the time we knew him. In the end we helped get him and his gear ready for important parades but were wise enough to let him be at other times, so that he was punished by having to do the menial tasks, like cleaning the toilet bowls that we didn’t particularly like. Yes. I know! Not very nice, was it? Yet expediency ruled the day.
The physically weak and essentially shy youngsters, of whom I was one, were bullied by others who generally speaking used this method to hide (or compensate for) their academic or sporting inability. It seemed to me, that to be really good at anything posed a threat to someone in the group, in the Company or the School. As ‘new boys’ we were fair game for anyone senior to us. We were forced to press uniforms, bull boots and undertake other tasks under threat of a beating. By which I do not mean schoolboy whacking with a stick but a beating with fists and not from just the person wanting the task done, but from his pals as well. We were often raided just after lights-out. Senior intakes took great delight in the game of rushing into the room and turning the beds over, waiting until the room had righted itself and doing it again an hour later. At one time, during Two Div 1 think, we had old-fashioned short plywood clothing lockers and telescoping beds. The beds were dangerous. They were two-part frames, the foot end being able to telescope into the head end, thereby halving their length. The mattress for this bed comprises three equal pieces called biscuits. If the bed was tipped up, the bottom half slammed home into the top half and forced the occupant into a tight bundle, the sheet and blanket mixed together with the disarrayed biscuits caused a log jam, which could be quite painful and constricting. I awoke after one such raid to find myself clinging to the section that the bottom half should have slid into. Had it done so it would no doubt have amputated my fingers.
Later the games became more dangerous, such as being blindfolded and hanged. This entailed standing one on a bedside locker and passing a rope around the neck and over the beam. The victim was blindfolded and asked for any requests. This was done in a bullying and frightening manner. Unseen was the piece of cotton tied to the rope and to the beam. When the bedside locker was kicked from under one, the resultant puddle of fright and wet clothing was another cause for hilarity and story spreading through the AAS. My particular event was to push a shoe polish tin lid with my nose, along the length of a senior intake’s room whilst they all took turns at seeing who could throw a dart closest to the tin. I shudder to think of the stupidity and danger this ‘sport’ engendered.
Certain persons, who cannot be named as I have unfortunately forgotten them, made the rounds of junior rooms throughout the camp a day or two before pay day (generally on a Tuesday or Wednesday) demanding money with menaces. We were forced to give up saved sweets and if permitted to smoke, our cigarettes and our few pennies left over from payday. Any complaints were unpleasantly dealt with. These men, for by that time they were men, collected a lot of cash to provide themselves with cigarettes and beer. Although apprentices were officially prohibited from entering public houses, this did not stop those determined to drink.
At a certain stage in our time at the AAS we were permitted to wear civvies, called Mufti, from Two Div up to and including Five Div. In the last term, that is to say when in Six Div, approved civilian clothes were permitted. In those early days it seemed to us that more than a few Senior Div found it necessary to add their standing in the AAS and to their masculinity, to be seen as deliberately flouting the regulations. Sure, we all bent the rules somewhere along the line, but there is a line to be drawn.
I managed to avoid much of the confrontation and bullying that took place in the early days of training. Generally speaking we were well guarded by the school system that gave extra care to First Div intake. Once we were assigned to Companies after the basic period of six months, much less visible protection was available. I think some must have hated almost every waking minute during their apprenticeship. I was one of those unfortunate types that attracted the attention of bullies and mean spirited people. It was difficult at times, but one learned to cope with it, ignore it and carry on. Somewhere in my psyche I have the scars. But back to the basic training period, which was six weeks long and full of repeated foot drill. This and other tasks kept us fully occupied from dawn to dusk, taking their toll in terms of fatigue, as we fell asleep as soon as our heads hit our pillows.
The initial training phase, which came as no surprise or difficulty to me, was completed without having once been bawled out or corrected for drill, dress or bearing. That alone was enough to get me noticed, not by the drill staff but by certain fellow pupils who thought it wrong that this skinny, short (5ft 4in) gawky underweight (1241bs) toad should be better at this new game than they were. In fact anyone who had been an army cadet fared well, as can be expected, as we had the advantage of experience at foot and weapon drill.
Having chosen the trade of Armourer, the authorities were not about to let me loose among weapons until certain basic engineering skills were learned. This involved much filing of raw pieces of metal into what were at best useless end products. However, a little thought could determine that the end product if diligently done, would teach us some essential hand fitting skills. For example, the filing up of a simple rectangular plate was to teach us the use of various files and the engineering tri square. The finishing of a cube comprising four filed flat sides, one scraped and one hacksawn surface was to impart the skills required to file, scrape and hacksaw. Naturally none of us ever achieved perfection or even came remotely close in those early days.
And so from August 1956 until June 1959, I was at AAS Arborfield, learning the theory and practise of becoming an Armourer. At the beginning there were 23 aspiring Armourers and by the time I passed out as an Armourer 3rd Class, there were nine of us left. The remainder had been discharged as incompatible with the trade or Army life, or relegated to repeat a particular term’s work, changed trade or simply had their parents purchase their discharge. As for me, despite the threat that I was unlikely to make the grade, I finished an overall third in my class. I must admit that I took to the trade like a duck to water. I will admit struggling with the academic side of things.
There were good times and bad times throughout the term of the apprenticeship. We weren’t paid a lot of money, but then no one in government service ever is. To me it was money I’d never had. We were only permitted to draw so much a week. The upper limit was determined by the division in which you were in, so that when I was in 1 Division I got 3/6d from the 31/6d wage. Some being tax, some being an allotment to parents and some to a Post Office Savings Book account. The last two were encouraged to the point of being an order. Of the remaining, you drew your 3/6d and the rest stayed in ‘credits’ and were paid out in full when one went on leave. This meant that there was a pocketful of money available at these times.
This method of forced saving had its downside. There were loan sharks in the AAS who charged anything up to 50% per week for a loan. It has been known for some poor sod to pay all his leave pay over to the loan shark. Bullyboys heavily enforced repayment. However, over a period of time we learnt to blend in with the prevailing culture at the AAS. Anyone who lived outside the ‘code’ was given the silent treatment or beaten up or both.
In those days we were issued with a minimum of three of everything, meaning pairs of socks, underwear, shirts, etc. This meant that on any given day there was one set in the locker, one set at the laundry and one set on your body. When I think about it I could shudder. Today we are used to changing every day. In those days we didn’t because you were only allowed to send so many articles into the laundry. I think it was ten items. If you wanted to submit extra underwear, then you sacrificed something else. Ten items was the inviolable rule.
Most of us had nothing more than the clothes issued to us. We were not permitted to wear civilian clothing for the first six months and thereafter only Mufti, comprising grey flannel trousers with a minimum width of the trouser bottoms of 18 inches and with turn-ups. A navy blue blazer with the AAS pocket badge, black shoes and ‘sober’ socks. All this was zealously inspected by the regular soldier guards assigned to the camp. If the socks were considered too gaudy, one was sent back to change them. The trouser bottoms were often measured to make sure that they were of the proper size. Anything smaller and you were considered of an antisocial persuasion, akin to being a teddy boy or tearaway with no respect for authority
When we were assigned to companies, following the necessary passing out parade after basic training and the initial six months in 1 Div, I was assigned to B Company where I remained for the rest of my apprenticeship. Our CSM was Sgt Maj Dunning (Devon & Dorset Regiment), whom we referred to as ‘Daddy Dunning’. Daddy wasn’t given to the normal run of bad language that we were subjected to on a daily basis. This was because, as far as we could ascertain, Daddy had come to us from a stint at Sandhurst, where of course it was not on to use bad language to the young gentlemen.
Regularly throughout the term we were given progress tests, the results of which were posted on a special board situated next to the chief instructor’s office door, so that individual progress could be seen. I’m pleased to say that it was a rare time when I didn’t figure in the first half dozen and then often in the first four. This was due to a genuine interest in the subject more than academic ability. After all, it was a memory feat, and yet that same memory so often let me down in maths and other subjects. It paid off, because in 1990 I was appointed South Africa’s theory examiner for Gunsmiths.
We progressed through rifles, pistols, submachine guns, machine guns, Mortars and so on. At the time of my apprenticeship we were still taking lessons in the old .38m No2 Enfield revolver, the .303in No l and No 4 rifles, the Vickers machine gun, the Bren light machine gun and the Sten submachine gun. The mortars were 2in and 3in models. All very well, one would think, but the problem was that the army was changing over to newer weapons of which we saw none, to speak of. Still the repair skills didn’t go to waste as some units remained with older equipment for some time. Meanwhile, we were still working our way through the old and tried syllabus.
I cannot remember with any accuracy all of the small arms instructors involved in my training at Arborfield. The Officer in charge of the Armourers workshop was a Major Viney, something of a champion pistol shot. Mr Morris(Jr) was the senior instructor and his elder brother Mr Morris(Sr) taught us all about the Lee Enfield rifles. A Mr Riley had the machine gun section and apart from Sgt John Downes, I can remember no others. Sgt Downes figured later in my career as my boss. At the time of my apprenticeship he was in charge of the support weapons section and took us through the Mobat recoilless rifle, Mortars, the Vickers tripod and other items I cannot recall. John Downes became a firm friend in later years. He is retired now and living in Canberra, Australia.
One of the small pleasures during my apprenticeship was the morning tea break at 1000 hours. I still enjoy the same break at the same time seven thousand miles away, in a different country, in a different uniform. During summer months it was always tea, in the winter it was cocoa, which we fetched in a large urn, picked up at the cookhouse and hauled back on a four-wheeled trolley. This was a duty that nobody tried to wriggle out of. The reason for this was that there was invariably some uneaten fried bread left over from breakfast.
The fact of gaining good marks in one’s chosen trade could lead to the unjustifiable charge of Juicing’. This term derived from ‘sucking up to teacher’. So, as can be seen, the culture of the times deemed it unmanly to be good at anything other than sports. I suppose this stems from the fact that most there were not of the highest academic standards in school and all from working class backgrounds where academic ability was considered as suspect, not quite respectable in a working class family.
Of course, there were apprentices of good education and ability. One could not, for example, hope to master the requirements of an Instrument Mechanic without some mathematical skills or the syllabus of the Radar Mechanics or electronic Control Equipment Mechanics (Ecce Mechs, to us) as early electro/mechanical computer personnel were called, as they were trained to service and repair machinery such as the artillery predictors.
Trades were grouped according to the degree of academic ability required, whether mechanical, electro/mechanical or purely mathematical for electronic work. Thus the top trades were X trades, followed by A, B and C. The pay scales (once qualified) were thus different. An Armourer was an A trade and so at the very least I was considered potentially capable of mastering the necessary skills. As it turned out, I did.
Try as I might, I couldn’t always divorce myself from the undercurrent of bullying and victimisation that was prevalent. I understood then as now, that at that kind of institution such things could never be entirely eradicated. At sometime during the three years of apprenticeship, every boy would be subjected to some form of bullying or intimidation. We accepted it as the norm and it readied us for life in the regular army, as men.
My sporting life was of no great note. Having taken a dislike to contact sports during my boarding school days, I opted for solitary sports like cross-country running. Naturally there were times when one was detailed off to participate in Company activities. In these events I showed my incompetence at football, rugby and cricket. Although I liked all of the games as a spectator, I was certainly not cut out to be a player.
Running as an activity, meant that I set my own pace and had time to think as I padded along. I got fairly proficient and ran as a team member for B Company. The activity in which I excelled the most was shooting. I held my own with the best. Indoor .22in target shooting was my forte. I shot for the company and in postal shoots for the school against AAS Chepstow and AAS Harrogate.
We were allowed out of the camp at weekends, though there was a curfew for all. The more senior the later the curfew. Time away from camp was valuable. Mostly it began after lunch on a Saturday as most Saturday mornings were taken up with one parade or another. To leave camp one had to conform to the dress code mentioned.
Home went to Reading, a relatively large town, but a bit dearer in bus fares. It was cheaper to go to Wokingham, about four miles away. There were dance halls and a cinema. As I was no dancer, a good scoff at a reasonable cafe, followed by a browse around a bookshop or two and then ‘pictures’, followed in turn by some window-shopping and girl spotting, was the general routine.
Wokingham left no particular lasting impressions. Reading will always be associated with Ma Beasley’s, a small quiet cafe near the centre of town. It was almost like a converted front room, and probably was, but the food was good and plentiful. For 2/6d we got two fried eggs, chips, beans, sausages, a cup of tea and two slices of buttered bread. After the hard fare of the cookhouse, this home cooking was wonderful and as I write I can taste it again.
At some time or other I was talked into joining the Arborfield Youth Club. At a small hall in the village there was a weekly dance where we could play our favourite records without adults complaining of the noise. There we met several of the village girls and made friends with one or two non-apprentices. On the whole we were well behaved and the group of us were together over a two-year period or so. Some paired off but none were of a permanent nature.
Leave was a subject close to the heart of all of us. So I believed, until I beard tales of orphans who had nothing much to look forward to in this respect. Nevertheless, great excitement could be felt as the term breaks came closer. We all estimated our pay out from credits and made many verbal plans on how best to spend it. Clothes were an important thing to us all, probably because of the restrictions to Mufti.
When the day came to be paid, usually the day before proceeding on leave, we were all warned to guard our cash carefully. Despite this someone sooner or later got robbed of all or most of his money. The ‘debt collectors’ would be round that evening, asking or demanding their money. To see colleagues near to tears, as they were relieved of their cash was not a pleasant sight. We were philosophical about this. We didn’t borrow from the sharks, but rather amongst ourselves so we did not have to pay the exorbitant interest rates, or promise to repay at leave time. Our attitude was that if you were stupid enough to play their game, then you must be prepared to take the consequences.
Having to travel in uniform meant that once we were home, we put it away until the end of leave. I recall the day before the end of some leave when in two or three Div; I hauled out my uniform to press it for the return to Arborfield. We were living at the time with my grandmother, whose house was gas lit. As I normally used an electric iron, my expertise with the gas iron was limited and I burnt the sleeve of my uniform jacket. Panic set in, what was I to do? I couldn’t travel with a burnt sleeve. Even worse, I would be for it once back at camp. I didn’t give a thought to the fact that I might have received a sympathetic hearing from the CSM or the QM, etc. I simply panicked. Fortunately, my mother’s sister was a seamstress and to hand was my father’s uniforms and my uncle’s, he being a WO in the TA, at the time. A shade cheek revealed that one of Uncle George’s battle dress blouses was a very close match in shade. So using her magic, my aunt Bet removed the two sleeves and made me a new one from the sleeve of George’s battle dress blouse. When finished, there was a slightly noticeable difference in the shade. For the next two years, no one ever remarked on it.
Leave was always enjoyed, but returning to camp was not. Although it was easy to slip back into the routine, a few days at home always brought back the realities of the rough and often crude conditions in which we lived when in barracks.
January 1959 saw the start of 56B’s final term as apprentices. In this period I turned eighteen and was put onto regular army pay. I had best explain. There were special rates of pay for ‘boy soldiers’ that were applicable to us. However, on reaching the age of 17, or 18 (I forget which), you were put on Regular Army pay.
Despite the pay scale a member was on, he was only allowed to draw a certain amount per week as explained earlier. Naturally it meant that ones credits were quite high come leave time.
When July 1959 came round I had passed the Class 3 Armourers practical test and passed the theory to Class 2. Not that it helped any; because some time later, in Duisburg, Germany, I had to sit the whole of the Class 2 test anyway, both theory and practical.
Having successfully passed out of the Army Apprentices School, the first Regular Army unit we went to was the REME Depot just up the road. The Depot was the holding place for us until we were assigned a workshop. We kept our figurative fingers crossed in the hope of a plum posting like Singapore, Hong Kong, Kenya, etc. We all knew that the chances were slim, but we hoped. In the end most of us were posted to the British Army of the Rhine.

But that’s another story….

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