THE SOLDIER AND THE SERGEANT MAJOR
After training in Bedfordshire and Somerset and spending short periods of time at small camps around Yorkshire, Billy was posted in 1947 to Catterick camp, which was the largest military settlement in Europe. It was a sprawling array of army units in the Yorkshire countryside, which included a movie house, a theatre, a number of NAAFIs and dance halls. The RASC camp was very formal and regimented, influenced by the General Headquarters situated directly on the other side of the road. Billy’s impression captured a scene that was dull and depressing with hordes of bodies in kaki uniforms saluting everything that moved and whitewashing everything that didn’t.
It was a regimental hell and the devil appeared in the form of a Company Sergeant Major called Paddy (not affectionately and not to his face), an Irishman of average build, with flaming red hair and a vaguely certifiable persona. What he lacked in stature was compensated for by the volume and projection of his voice - equal to any loudspeaker system of the day, with penetrating power strong enough to shatter a brick wall at 100 paces. Rumour had it that Paddy was the inspiration for the flamethrower! His only redeeming feature was that his voice preceded him, affording his subordinates the opportunity to hide.
Paddy would order privates around with choice words such as: "That man there, stand to attention when I’m talking to you, what do you think you’re on - your daddy’s yacht? Get a hair cut, you horrible man", and off he would go to his next victim.
"Where do you think you are going in those dirty boots." "Stand upright when I’m talking, you dozy man." " I want to see my face in your boots the next time, you sad looking soldier." "Do that button up, you untidy man," he would bellow to someone else as he made his way around the camp. "I’ll have your guts for garters if you don’t straighten up."
"Report to my bed at 6pm" - would be the ultimate humiliation in the presence of others.
Frequently Paddy and assorted NCOs would burst into the billets like shock troops in the morning. The noise was deafening and offensive to those not yet coming to terms with commencing the military day. The purpose of this intrusion was known as inspection and probably had something to do with the durability of the beds and lockers, since Paddy went around banging them violently with his stick. He was perhaps a man of fine tastes as he showed an interest in the smoothness of the tops of doors and window ledges, sliding his index finger over the surfaces with a satisfied expression on his face.
Paddy was not an easy person to describe with words that would do him justice, but a few starting with ‘O’ come to mind: Objectionable, obstreperous, obtrusive and obtuse. Obsequious he was not!
Although Billy managed to avoid Paddy and was never personally accosted by him, his dislike for the Irishman who barked like a dog increased with the passing of time. The daily screaming and hollering resounded like a bowling alley in his brain and began to take its toll.
Hardly a day passed when the soldier didn’t consider the world would be a better place without the Gaelic motor mouth with a badge resembling scrambled eggs on his sleeve.
At the height of Billy’s discontent, he was ordered to clean Paddy’s office and was manoeuvring dust around the floor with a witches broom when he heard the approaching sounds of Paddy’s annunciation in the distance - probably 3 miles away. It was the usual screeching, "Walk smartly you horrible soldier, you untidy man, you’ll be in the guard house before your feet touch the ground." "At the double" etc. providing advance notice of Paddy’s arrival. In fairness to this Irish paragon of military virtue, he was consistent. His voice reached a crescendo outside the office as the tension rose and Billy braced himself for the worst.
Then Paddy entered the office, removed his hat, sat down on his chair, put his feet up on the desk and drank a cup of tea. Instead of the screaming, shouting, barking and bellowing, there were jokes and laughter. Everyone was relaxed; at ease and the office was a fun place. Billy couldn’t believe the character transformation.
Ireland should be proud of the way Paddy covered the British troops with the proverbial wool and defied physics by motivating soldiers into perpetual motion. Contrary to the popular belief that he was a disciple of Eamon De Valera and Michael Collins’ IRA sent to destroy the morale of the British army, he was a normal human being and his belligerence was just an act. It was the way of the British army at the time and probably always will be.
Billy never lost his distaste for the vocal pyrotechnics, but he no longer disliked the man.
Prayers for Paddy’s demise no longer entered his head.
BARBIE AND KEN
Copyright © Bill Hawksford.
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