In November 1946 Billy was ordered to report to Kempston Barracks in Bedfordshire for 6 weeks basic training in the British army. Entering the gates of this impressive foreboding looking fortress, which was built in 1875 and could easily be mistaken for a prison, he couldn’t help thinking that his only crime was to reach the tender age of 18. He was now one of many young men who were compelled to fulfill a National Service in a uniform and take up arms against the enemies of the Queen to protect the honour of the British Empire -
And he hadn’t even received the Queen’s shilling!
Billy was a romantic young man and the words of the song ‘Lily Marlene’ were playing in his head as he strolled into the barracks, resigned to become a soldier. In keeping with the song, his imaginative mind conjured up visions of sneaking out of the gate at night to meet an attractive lady under a lamplight. It was all very exciting and bewildering to the young man who had no knowledge of what was in store for him.
Reality soon came crashing down and before he could ask, "where are the ATS quarters?", the recruits were ushered into a building and issued with a disgusting looking uniform, a ridiculous hat, large ugly boots and enough webbing to bridle a horse. In addition to an old Enfield 303 rifle, which looked like it dated back to the Boer war.
The new recruits were then herded into sleeping quarters with 25 steel frame beds lined up neatly on both sides, which would be their home for the next two months. There were no lockers for storing possessions, which would be superfluous anyway because everything the soldiers possessed, with the exception of what they were wearing during the day, was positioned on top of the beds in neat squares in a particular pattern - socks on the top left, underpants on the top right, small packs here, large packs there etc. Most of the recruits were under the impression that someone with a nervous compulsive disorder was responsible for dreaming up the idea of displaying underwear and other personal items in a neat orderly sequence on top of the beds. Others considered it to be a fiendish scheme to save the army buying additional furniture.
In the evening the soldiers were granted special dispensation to remove the objects and use the beds for their intended purpose. One night when all the beds were free of the neat little adornments a trainee from another room entered and ran down the line of beds stepping from one to the other, which was quite funny, but lost on the trainees who were conscientiously shining their boots and polishing their badges and buckles.
The following night the same thing happened and the third night the man entered and repeated his act, only this time when he reached the seventh bed it collapsed and sent him crashing to the floor. The trainees, who were all waiting for this to happen, thought it was hilarious and fortunately the man wasn’t hurt, with the exception of a few bruises. The trainees helped the man to his feet, reassembled the bed and this time locked the supports into position. From then on the exhibitionist’s interest in slapstick was not apparent.
It didn’t take the new recruits long to realize that the army had its own culture, which was imposed by the training instructors known as NCOs, standing for Non Commissioned Officers, who wore V-shaped white chevrons on their sleeves indicating their position in the hierarchy. These gentlemen who demanded respect, had exceptionally loud voices and showed very little tolerance for the trainees. They also displayed sour expressions on their faces, conveying the impression that they were not very happy with their chosen profession. In short they were graduates of charm school who had learned how to lose friends and alienate people. However to their credit, they were immaculately turned out in beautifully pressed uniforms, with brass buttons and buckles all shining and boots so highly polished, they resembled bright light bulbs. And they moved about the barracks with mechanical precision only equaled by robots, which was a good example to some and amusement to others - It was military theatre at its best.
For the most part the training consisted of marching, shining boots, more marching, rifle drill, more shining boots, rifle practice, more marching, polishing brass buckles, buttons and badges, more shining boots, blancoing webbing and more marching. The training also covered with clarity the appropriate reverence in the presence of officers.
There was little humour in all these activities except for a man by the name of Blockhead. All the trainees knew his name well, because at marching time the drill sergeant who was a typical kind hearted soul, used to call out, "don’t swing your arms up and down both together - Blockhead".
Rifle drill in the early morning of November with thick frost on the parade ground and only a sweater covering the top portion of the body, was invigorating to say the least. The first few minutes before the exercises began was so cold that even the proverbial brass monkeys would be concerned about the family jewels. The drill sergeant, who had a questionable command of the English language, but an innate ability to communicate, would suggest things like, "Get fell in" and it was remarkable that everyone knew what he was talking about. He would also entertain them with amusing games involving word syllables, which the soldiers had to figure out and respond to.
The drill sergeant would utter in a loud reverberating voice, in case any of the recruits were hard of hearing: "Stannnd-attttt-ease, attennnnn-shun, quickkkkk-march, abouttttt-turn, companyyyyy-halt!" and when they had overstayed their welcome, he would say, "disssss-miss!" Private Blockhead also had difficulty understanding this new phenomenon, because his name was continually mentioned.
Target practice was Billy’s nemesis and the heavy old Enfield rifle didn’t help. They were told to hold the rifle butt as close to the shoulder as possible and the recoil practically dislocated his shoulder. Thinking he misunderstood the instructions and should hold it away from the shoulder, he fired the next round and almost broke a bone. From then on it felt like a large horse was kicking him in the shoulder every time he took a shot. The next day he could hardly lift his arm and was concerned about his social life, however it didn’t present a problem, because they were confined to the barracks for the next two weeks. Whoever designed the Enfield 303 rifle obviously had a grudge against the British army and Billy decided that the best strategy for winning the next war would be to give all the Enfields to the enemy and let them immobilize themselves! They could then send in the bed straddler who would be so annoying that they would capitulate.
The training days went by without altercations with the exception of a lance corporal who took exception to something about Billy and satisfied his ego by ordering him to run around the playing field five times with the rifle over his head. The physical part was not a problem, but he felt silly and his pride was hurt. He also thought that the punishment was excessive, which didn’t endear him to these authoritarian figures, who remained his adversaries
‘Milling’ was the only activity Billy enjoyed, because it was like boxing. However the ring and the gloves are where the similarity ends and everything else is different. The proceedings start with two individuals entering the ring from opposite sides and flailing away at each other for 2 minutes until the bell rings. The next 2 immediately enter and repeat the procedure, which carried on until everyone participates.
Competitions between barrack rooms create a lot of excitement and there is no consideration for the size of the individuals, which can be unfortunate for the smaller men. Billy’s opponent who was considerably larger than him entered the ring and charged with both hands flailing. He reached him part way across and Billy stepped to one side to avoid the oncoming locomotive. Propelled by momentum his opponent continued until he reached the ropes, then turned around and mustered an advance in the opposite direction. Billy instinctively stepped aside once again and his opponent continued as before, only this time he followed the confused attacker and when he turned around, he let him have it with both barrels, before he could unleash another offensive.
The large lad having no defence against the onslaught, rolled up as best he could into a fetal position with his arms over his head and his knees bent, as if to say ‘please don’t hit me any more.’ The Marquis of Queensbury rules state that punching is expected to continue unless the man receiving the punishment has one hand on the canvas.
Billy was not aware of the rules for ‘Milling’ if there are any and not wishing to let his team down and at the same time have mercy on his opponent, circled the lad, tapping him lightly on the top of his head with his gloves and calling out to him to put one hand on the canvas. The bell sounded and Billy was given the decision. A couple of the NCO trainers approached him afterwards with their congratulations, which may have helped him avoid trouble at this facility.
A number of the recruits attending the basic training course were college lads who were about 2 years older than the rest. They were a friendly interesting bunch despite the fact that they were potential officers. With the training drawing to a close, some of the college lads decided to organise a theatrical show for the staff, which would take place at the end of the course. They took responsibility for directing, producing, stage management and lighting, with a casting call going out for entertainers. One of the trainees from Billy’s hometown agreed to play his drums if they could be transported to and from the barracks. To support the show and realising that weekend passes were in the offing; Billy suggested transporting the drum kit in his father’s car, if he was allowed home to get them. Returning from the trip with the drums after enjoying a hard-earned weekend, he was saluted by the guards on entering the barracks. It should be noted that in those days few people owned cars and the guards obviously assumed that anyone entering the barracks with one had to be an officer. He appreciated the formal welcome back and responded with a little wave or a vertical finger - he couldn’t remember which!
The drum kit assignment involved him with the show and as it progressed there appeared to be a shortage of performers. His imagination went to work and came up with an idea to help the situation by volunteering his services. He could be a comedian and involve another trainee if they considered his sketch worthy, he explained to the producer and director, who listened to his story and encouraged him to formulate his idea and recruit someone for the other part.
Show time commenced with the auditorium packed to capacity with the officers and their wives, including the CO in the front seats, followed by the staff NCOs and the trainees at the back.
When it was Billy’s turn to perform, he was remarkably calm and stood in the front of the stage with an air of confidence. He knew he wasn’t nervous, because he could see the audience clearly and was not averse to looking at them. He spoke in his best BBC manner, which he continued for the duration of the sketch, telling the audience that he would like to play some classical music on the piano…(pause)…. He then explained that he would like to if he knew how to play a piano.
That joke set the tone for the rest of the sketch, which went as follows: Seriously ladies and gentlemen, it would be a shame if you were denied an evening of classical music, simply because there are no instruments in this establishment. Without further ado and with complete disregard for convention, I would like to play my rendition of 'In a Monastery Garden.' Placing two fingers in his mouth, Billy whistled a reasonable version of the tune and when the appropriate time came, he broke out into bird imitations.
That was the signal for the stooge sitting unobserved in the back row to play his part, starting with a loud voice interrupting the whistler and announcing, 'that’s a lot of cobblers!' The whole audience turned around to see what was happening, at which time the whistler stopped and called out to the heckler in an astonished voice, “ what is that you said?” “ It’s a lot of rubbish,” the heckler continued. “ If you can do any better come up here on the stage,” the whistler challenged, which was the signal for the stooge to walk from the back and climb up onto the stage. What the audience saw was a little man dressed in a civilian suit (the only one in the house) many times larger than his size. The shoulders had large padding and the loud jacket reached down to his knees. He wore white socks and a large coloured tie that almost touched the floor. The stage was set for the following dialogue: “What seems to be your problem young man?” asked the whistler, continuing the old BBC stuff. “That’s a lot of nonsense,” repeated the stooge.
This time the whistler ignored the remark and asked the stooge why he wasn’t in the army and before the stooge could reply the whistler turned his head to the audience and announced with his hand covering his mouth from the stooge, “he doesn’t know I am a recruitment officer!” To which the audience roared. “I don’t know anything about all that marching about stuff.” The stooge responded. “Come over here young man and allow me to bestow upon you the benefit of my considerable military experience,” suggested the whistler.
As the stooge walked towards him, the whistler turned his head once again to the audience with his hand at the side of his mouth and announced, “I’ve got him going now!” To cut a long story short, the banter continued for about another 10 minutes until the stooge finally accepted the Queen’s shilling, at which time the two comedians left the stage arm in arm. Billy would like to feel that he contributed to the success of the show, which according to the CO would have gone on tour had it not been for the fact that everyone was scheduled to be posted to different camps after Christmas.
On completion of the training, the recruits were given leave for Christmas and Billy enjoyed the company of his girl friend, who he had known for less than a year and was a couple of years older than him. She was an attractive girl with a model figure and a nice face; except that she wore so much make-up, he wasn’t exactly sure what was underneath. Before the end of his leave she surprised him with an ultimatum; either marry me or else, and in the heat of the moment, so to speak, he agreed.
He didn’t sleep well that night with concern that he didn’t have enough money to even buy the marriage license, so he got up early and informed the anxious young lady that all bets were off. Finished, caput – no more!
Later he realised that his intended must have woken up her family that night to inform them of the forthcoming nuptials, because although he called it off early the following morning her big brother, who was previously one of his buddies was singularly unfriendly towards him from then on. Although he didn’t feel that he had jilted her in the true sense of the word, the eventual showdown with the big brother would indicate otherwise and is another story!
Dejected by the loss of his true love and wishing to encourage the growth of his thinning hair, Billy had it all removed before returning to barracks. Consequently for a considerable period of time he was easily identifiable, attributing to a number of difficulties.
SING FOR YOUR SUPPER
Copyright © Bill Hawksford.
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