Chapters

National Service Title

INTRODUCTION

Conscription had been introduced in 1939 and continued after the Second World War. It was formalised in peacetime by the National Service Act 1948. From January 1 1949, every man over the age of eighteen was expected to serve in the armed forces for eighteen months (this was extended to two years in 1950 as a response to the Korean War), and remain on the reserve list for four years thereafter.


From the end of the war until the birth of The Beatles 2.5 million young men were called up at a rate of 6,000 every fortnight. Although it officially ended on 31st December 1960, the last National Serviceman, Lieutenant Richard Vaughan of the Royal Army Pay Corps, was not discharged until 13 May 1963.
Some young men went willingly, some went reluctantly, but considering that WWII was over, few were prepared for some of the deplorable conditions and the ridiculous circumstances they had to endure during their involuntary servitude.


Presented here are one man's recollections of the first and only peace-time conscription in the UK. Bill Hawksford's account of his service is a nostalgic walk down memory lane for some and of general interest to all. Enjoy reading about this young man's humorous personal escapades and see the British Army through his eyes as a lorry driver, a boxer, a general's chauffeur, a pay clerk, a janitor and a barber, in addition to an enlightening insight into the lesser known military court-martial and the feared detention barracks.


Find out why Bill's father, an ex-RSM, warned him that in the army they played a lot of 'Silly Buggers '.

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Copyright © Bill Hawksford.


 Young Bill

THE PROLOGUE

Life began for Billy in the light industrial town of Luton, Bedfordshire, England in 1928 when Luton was known for Vauxhall cars and a third division football club. The boy was born to an Irish mother from Cork and an English father who grew up in a small village in Bedfordshire.


Billy saw little of his father through his teens, because his father was in the army fighting WW11. His father was an extremely honorable hard working man who climbed his way through the ranks to the position of Regimental Sergeant Major in the RASC. Billy had the utmost respect for both of his parents.


The school leaving age in those days was 14 and Billy’s father arranged for him to stay on another year hoping to improve his knowledge. Although he tried as hard as everyone else, the information just went in one ear and out the other as though there was nothing in between to absorb it. He was never a good student and the crowded school conditions caused by the evacuees from London during the war exacerbated the situation. However the truth of the matter was that Billy just didn’t have what it takes, which they now say is the result of unfair genomes distribution (Biological makeup). So what he’s trying to say, is being a dum-dum wasn’t his fault and he’s not guilty your honour.


The un-achiever’s problem was mainly a lack of recall and his spelling, which was atrocious and although he improved it considerably over the years, it is still atrocious. These shortcomings affected many other things and most importantly discouraged him from pursuing further education. An example of the difficulty caused by these problems, was the boy’s failure to pass the Morse code and Semaphore tests in the Sea Cadets. If he could remember the codes, he couldn’t spell the words and if he could spell the words, he couldn’t remember the codes.


He was never keen on history and considered it to be dull chronological events of the past, which had no importance in his life. Billy was unaware that if he didn’t learn from the past he was doomed to repeat some of the bad parts - Now practiced with regular monotony by heads of state that normally know the history, but just ignore it.


Unsupervised during the war Billy enjoyed the company of numerous kids from the neighbourhood and had many friends, however his closest companion was always trouble, which just followed him around all the time. Climbing over fences, he was always the one to tear his pants and cuts and bruises were a way of life. He was a menace with fireworks and enjoyed all the other questionable boyhood activities.
Being a rather small boy was a disadvantage at the hands of bullies and not appreciating their attention he devised ways to thwart them. One such ingenious idea was to run away, which was not very successful, because they could always run faster than him. Realising that the aforementioned scenario could be turned into an advantage, Billy modified the exercise by stopping in full flight and rolling himself up into a ball.
The result was that the pursuer, running at full speed, couldn’t stop and would run right into the back of him and emulate a glider for a few feet before dropping to the ground with an agonizing thud. (Don’t try this at home!) From then on these bullies passed him on the other side of the street as if they didn’t recognize him. Billy will always have fond memories of the first flyer whose name was Reggie Peat, but he doubts if Reggie shares his sentiment.


Billy’s father told him that bullies are cowards and insisted that he punch them straight in the nose whenever they attacked him in the future and the advice turned out to be as good as the source. It goes without saying that the bullies were the biggest boys in the school and were considered the best fighters. Armed with the experience gained from combating the bullies on the street, some instruction and encouragement from his father, young Billy was well prepared when he started school. One at a time he put the antagonists in their place with his speed and agility, combined with an undaunted determination, which was lacking in his adversaries. It became apparent they didn’t have the stomach for this activity when it wasn’t going in their favour and to assure that it never would, he was motivated to continue improving his skills. The unexpected outcome of all this physical stuff, which was basically all self-defence up until this point, was that other boys who he had no quarrel with also challenged him to fight. Never one to back down, he always convinced them of the error of their ways and was eventually considered the schools ‘Best Fighter.’ The major benefit of this exalted position, which carried a lot of respect from the other boys, was that he was seldom picked on and no longer required to defend himself. 

EvacueesAs some of us find out when we are complacent, things have a way of changing and the evacuees from London during the war altered the routine at school for a long time. First the evacuees would use the school in the mornings and the natives in the afternoons, and then it was changed to alternate days, which remained. The large influx of evacuee children included many with pugilistic aspirations and contenders for the ‘Best Fighter’ title began to surface. It was not unlike the Wild West movies where ambitious gentleman in spurs challenged each other to gunfights to satisfy their egos. Groups of evacuees would lay in wait for the titleholder and the hopeful contender would offer up customary insults in the best Marquis of Queensbury tradition, until there was an exchange of bare knuckles. Again Billy exceeded expectations and maintained his title until moving on to secondary school. There his reputation preceded him and the Wild West nonsense started all over again. After a number of altercations the folk hero worshippers bestowed the questionable title of ‘Best Fighter’ on him again, where it remained.


Later Billy enjoyed the sport of boxing where he developed an excellent defence as a result of his natural instincts and fast reflexes, which saved his bacon on a number of occasions outside of the ring when particularly large individuals became physical. For reasons, which he never understood and could only assume that it was the embarrassment in front of people, these large antagonists would cease and desist, when they were unable to connect with his swift moving frame after a certain period of time.


As an athlete, amateur boxing became one of his favourites and he derived satisfaction, both as a spectator and a participant from the pure skill of the sport. He never liked hurting people, never struck anyone first outside of the ring and always disengaged at the first opportunity. He retired from the ring after a swelling on one of his ears and being advised that if it happened again, it would have to be lanced resulting in a wrinkled configuration known as a cauliflower ear. Not wishing to be known as the greengrocer, he quickly found other interests.


His first commercial venture was in the newspaper business as a private contractor, which he felt was an honourable profession and his propensity for hard work and natural business acumen was a good formula for success. He chose this enterprise because he owned the necessary transportation and the merchandise was available at no charge. Unfortunately it was a seasonal business, which was not exactly what he wanted, but he made the best of it while it lasted. It was actually a two-part operation starting in the beginning of November and finished abruptly on the 5th. The first part was to position his soapbox cart with a stuffed effigy at a busy intersection and suggest passers by contribute a penny for the Guy and you know who the guy was! The other side of the business which was equally as lucrative was to collect newspapers door to door for the bonfire on the 5th and sell them to the fish and chip shops for 1 penny a pound. He wasn’t concerned that the newspapers were not being used for the implied purpose, because he felt that there was something immoral about burning items which could be put to better use such as keeping fish and chips warm for the populace and providing sweets for small boys. It was also felt that no one would really mind except Guy Fawkes, who probably enjoyed fish and chips in his day also.


He was an industrious boy, which was the only trait in common with his father, but most of what he learned was obtained the hard way. The following story is a good example: A neighbour gave Billy a metal fireplace surround, telling him to sell it to the scrap yard and keep the money, which he did and received 2 shillings. Seizing on the opportunity to get rich, Billy organized a number of friends with soapbox carts to scour the countryside for old metal parts. At the end of the day they converged on the scrap yard with their carts piled high with metal, where the man placed it all on a large scale and handed them 4 pennies. "How can that be?" Billy questioned "You paid me 2 shillings yesterday for only one piece of metal." The man patiently explained that the fire surround was made of brass, which has a much higher value than the other stuff, which was iron and steel. Billy then realized why the metal was dumped in the fields in the first place. Now being able to relate to the subject, he had no difficulty learning about the characteristics and value of metals and alloys. One thing about learning the hard way is that you rarely forget it!
While Billy was growing up his father was away in the army. When his father returned, Billy was busy chasing the girls, drinking and gambling. His father, a man of few words, gave him little advice, but what he did convey turned out to be pearls of wisdom. On reflection, Billy couldn’t have been all that stupid, because chasing the girls, drinking and gambling has remained some of the most popular pursuits for the masculine persuasion.


What compares with beautiful females and their stimulating effects? What compares with the pleasure of drinking with good company and the excitement of winning money? Few would turn away from fast horses, friendly women and a little libation!


The boy the army conscripted the same month he turned 18 in 1946 was a 5 feet 5 inch healthy lad with a premature receding hairline. He was almost completely uneducated, having forgotten much of what he learned in school, but he was somewhat wise in the ways of the street after wasting his youth in places like billiard halls and gambling with unsavoury characters. The boy’s only accomplishment was learning the art of fisticuffs, which gave him a needed confidence and although he respected everyone, he feared no one - A mindset, which has disadvantages, but probably an asset on balance.


Another shortcoming causing Billy a lot of difficulty later in life was his reluctance to accept nonsense from people. He could only hold his feelings in for a certain period of time and eventually would have to blurt out something regrettable. He resented insincerity, politics and politicians - people of little substance, manipulators, Philadelphia, small dogs and the army. Not necessarily in that order. He empathized with the less fortunate, always believing - ‘ There but for the grace of God go I.’---- Unknown.


"You will die in the electric chair," were the words of encouragement predicted by Sister Pat, his first schoolteacher - A tough Irish nun with a knock out punch in both hands, who missed her calling as a prize-fighter. Comforting thoughts when he eventually immigrated to America!


Billy’s upbringing left a marked impression. His Irish mother ensured that he didn’t place his elbows on the dining table, reached for food or ate with the wrong knife and fork, which had to be positioned correctly on the empty plate. He was disciplined to tip his cap in the presence of ladies, doctors, solicitors, priests, insurance agents and any one else his mother held in high esteem. His mother was intimidated by the class system in England at the time and it was many years before Billy realized that everyone was not his superior. Consequently he developed a mild abiding contempt for authority and the Oxford accent.
Continually in trouble as a boy and recalling some of his exploits in latter years he asked his father how bad he really was when he was young. "You were never malicious," replied his dad, which was an exceptionally welcome compliment.


The stories in this blog relate the true accounts of the ridiculous situations Billy experienced in the British Army 1946-1949, which now appear incredulous and funnier in retrospect. Army life would have been so much more acceptable had the humorous events been fully appreciated at the time. On second thoughts they probably would have certified him for being a laughing idiot! - So swing the lamp and come with him on a journey into another place and another time. Enjoy reading his memoirs as he did recalling and writing them.

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 New Recruit

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 fulfil 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.

BarracksThe 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.

Army Cartoon 1It 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 equalled 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.

Army Cartoon 2Target 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.

Army Cartoon 3Competitions 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 foetal 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.

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 Sing For Your Supper

‘Sing for your Supper’ the sign said outside of the church as Billy was making his way back to Kempston barracks one evening at Christmas time in 1946. Hearing the sound of the congregation inside, the invitation was very tempting to the hungry young lad whose only concern was whether he could live up to his end of the bargain, considering that he couldn’t sing a note in tune. His decision to enter however was supported by his conviction that the Lord would never turn away a hungry soul for singing off key and would surely forgive his shortcomings if he tried his best.


Middle age men dressed in shabby cloths were lined up inside the church singing away for all they were worth. It became obvious that the chorus were regulars and had sung there before, because there were no song sheets to read from and everyone appeared to know the words. Undaunted Billy joined the end of the line moving his lips in time to the music and eventually mumbling words, but mostly praying that he would not be denounced as an imposter before suppertime.


After what felt like an eternity to the hungry lad, the singing eventually stopped and while still standing in a line, everyone received a slice of dry bread, which was immediately devoured by the congregation. ‘These men must be famished,’ Billy thought, resisting the temptation and deciding to save the bread to eat it with his hot supper. The dictionary definition of the word supper is: The evening meal especially when dinner is taken at midday.


Fortunately before the singing resumed Billy realized that he was the victim of misleading advertising and the slice of dry bread was the extent of the supper, which he considered to be a cruel hoax. Stuffing the bread into his mouth he made his weary way back to barracks, confused by the relationship of religion, catering and advertising.


Over the years Billy turned the wording of the sign over in his mind and couldn’t get it to make any sense without being misleading.

"Sing for a slice of dry bread"
"Free dry bread - singing optional"
"Free bread - eat in or take out"
"Sing for a slice - bread not pizza"
"Church exchanges bread for song"
"Leave a song, take a slice of bread"

Billy’s Irish mother had a saying, "You wouldn’t call out bad fish would you?" which loosely translated meant that all advertising has to sound good at the expense of the truth.

He learned the hard way that there is no such thing as a free lunch!

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 National Service Drill

Having completed his basic training at Kempston Barracks in Bedfordshire, Billy arrived at Houndstone and Lufton camp in Yeovil, Somerset January 1947 to commence his Royal Army Service Corp, RASC training as a ‘Driver Mechanic.’ Before the training commenced Billy changed his mind and decided that he only wished to be a driver, because he couldn’t come to terms with being in dirty overalls all the time.

Houndstone and Lufton camps were situated opposite each other in fields just outside of town with a country road running between the entrances. The driver training was conducted at Lufton; the smaller of the two and Houndstone provided the transit accommodation for incoming and outgoing troops, in addition to a cinema, a dance hall, a gymnasium, administration offices and a NAAFI (Navy, Army & Air-Force Institutes.) There was also a good size guardhouse staffed by 6 feet tall formidable looking Grenadier guards, who swaggered about the camp looking like elongated peacocks in season. This was the only army facility he was aware of, which was policed by guardsman, and it was a little disquieting.

The camps date back to 1925 when everything was under canvas and although considerable improvements were made since then, maintenance was not a priority and in 1947 the temporary buildings were in a serious state of disrepair. Lufton consisted of a small company office, a cookhouse and the other ranks living quarters, which was a large single story wooden condemned army hospital without hot running water. To prevent facial disfiguration, soldiers shaved in hot tea, which was plentiful from the cookhouse and was one of their few acceptable contributions.

CartoonThe training, which mainly involved driving lorries, was a 6-week course which lasted three months, and that’s how it was in the army! The extended period in the camp was the result of an unusual snowstorm, plus posting delays and a spot of leave. Our hero completed the driving part of it in about a week, because he already knew how to drive and the rest of the time was spent learning vehicle maintenance and goofing off - Mostly the latter. Volunteering for boxing was the smartest thing he ever did in the army, because it was the greatest farce imaginable. For two weeks the young athlete and his buddy were excused all duties and were left unsupervised to train for a boxing tournament. In the army’s inimitable way, they provided the two pugilists a 10 X 10 room to train in with no boxing apparatus or other physical training equipment, just an empty room. Their clothing was not suitable for roadwork in the cold weather and with the exception of occasional calisthenics, walking to the NAAFI and playing cards was the extent of their training. Fortunately the tournament was eventually cancelled, which was a blessing, considering neither of them were in shape.

The most memorable event during this period was the 1947 snow blizzard, which paralyzed most of England and extended their stay in the camp. The snow came down unexpectedly and didn’t stop for a week, depositing white stuff several feet deep with 10-feet high drifts. Most importantly the snow interfered with the training routine and the morning roll call on the parade ground became impossible.

1947 WinterThings were somewhat chaotic and confusion reigned for several days. Shovelling was the order of the day, regardless of the fact that suitable footwear was not available. Being averse to such activity, Billy with two of his friends, moved out of the assigned dormitory accommodation and found a small room in the same building. Removing the handle from the outside of the door so that no one could enter, they settled in for the duration of the storm. The unfortunates who shovelled as the snow descended couldn’t keep up with the relentless downfall and the high wind drifts. Day after day it came down unmercifully, making it difficult to even maintain a reasonable path from the billets to the cookhouse. Venturing out for tea and food when absolutely necessary, the trio would ascertain from the other soldiers that they were not being missed and the roll call was a thing of the past.

On rare excursions from their little hide away, they would observe mountainous snow piles in the vehicle parking area and still the lorries were unable to move, because the surrounding roads were impassable. Snow removing equipment was not in evidence and shovelling was the only defence against the onslaught.

It must be said that the troops contributed above and beyond the call of duty and deserved a special commendation - That and a shilling would probably get them a small pack of Woodbines!

National Service SoldierThe trio returned to their assigned billet after a number of days on hearing that all shovelling was discontinued with the exception of the important trail to the cookhouse. Another two days and the hostility was over, the snowfall ceased and it started to thaw. The mess in the camp as the snow melted was unimaginable and getting from one building to another was an accomplishment. The slush was so deep that mobility became an art and the camp resembled the old mining towns in the cowboy movies, with people paddling through knee high mud to cross the street. Sir Galahad would have had a field day with the ATS girls! Always looking for the silver lining in the cloud, Billy welcomed the temporary discontinuation of polishing boots.

Attending the cinema at Houndstone camp was a memorable experience, with the place filled to capacity with soldiers and ATS girls. The film was about American gangsters, which was very popular at the time and featured Cornel Wild. Everyone was enjoying the Hollywood entertainment until Mr. Wild, who was playing the part of a detective, inquired of someone who was following him, “why are you shagging me?” and at that juncture the audience went into convulsions. Pandemonium broke out and to put it in the vernacular, “they went bonkers.” This adolescent behaviour continued for the rest of the picture, making it impossible to hear another word spoken.

After completing the training course the soldiers were given leave before being posted to working units. Returning to the camp in the evening instead of the following morning, because of the train schedules, Billy arrived late and felt like a cup of tea. Not wishing to trudge through the mud to the NAAFI at Hounstone camp, Billy decided to try and charm one of the ATS girls in the cookhouse and before he could ask if a hot beverage was available for a weary traveller, a vision of a Samurai wrestler appeared in the form of a frazzled looking extra rotund ATS corporal, stopping him in his tracks.

“Come into my web,” said the spider to the fly, leading Billy into the inner spud-bashing sanctum. It was a strange sort of room with only three walls, like a cubical and the potatoes were piled 6 feet high. He had never seen so many potatoes before in his life and was dumfounded with his predicament, which was his first introduction to military injustice. The Samurai handed him a knife and told him to go to work. “But I’m still on leave until tomorrow morning,” protested the innocent optimist with a thirst for a cup of tea. “Start peeling those spuds or you’ll be on a charge,” the Samurai ordered as she waddled off, probably looking for another victim.

The disheartened young man, with no formal training in the culinary arts and even less aptitude, sat on a wooden box and peeled. The first thing he noticed after removing the skin and eyes from one of the large objectionable looking objects, was that very little of the original remained.

Now he knew why all those nasty eyes always appeared in the mashed potatoes, because if they were taken out, there wouldn’t be enough mash to go around. He then pondered the reason why all the vegetables and meat were also unacceptable in the army and he knew it wasn’t because they didn’t have talented cooks, because it required a special kind of genius to consistently produce the same old slop continuously. He decided that the quality control had to be exceptionally good to prevent even a few decent meals slipping through. After contemplating the cookhouse food for a while, he looked down at the few potatoes he had massacred and calculated that it would take him the best part of three weeks to peel the rest. He then realised that the Samurai corporal didn’t know him from Adam and he was gone.

Back in the Houndstone camp when the road conditions had improved Billy and his buddy waited in the transit area for a posting. Every morning the new graduates would be lined up in fours outside the billets and forced into hard labour around the camp to clean offices, latrines and all the other filthy jobs imaginable. A sergeant situated in front of the troops would call out groups such as the last four rows on the right, the two rows in the centre, the last four rows on the left and so on. NCOs then marched off these unhappy soldiers like chain gangs to their unpleasant duties. Every morning at least 20 fortunate soldiers were left standing and were free to pursue activities of their choice. Those with an aversion to menial tasks and a penchant for a challenge positioned themselves in the morning line up in a place they considered least likely to be called. It became a game, which wasn’t easy, because the devious sergeant varied the sequence every morning. However it was fun and our hero would win as many times as he would lose. This activity reminded him of his father’s advice that the army played a lot of ‘silly buggers’ and now he knew exactly what he meant. ‘How did he get himself into this?’ he kept asking himself, and the answer was always the same – ‘Rudimentary my dear Watson, you reached the age of 18!’

Finally a posting to Germany came for the two friends, who were scheduled to assemble in the gym the following morning. That day at lunchtime, which was not unusual, the only thing Billy could eat was the dessert - a nice plum duff with raisins and sultanas. Afterwards while he was washing his mess-tins in the hot water tanks outside the cookhouse, he realised that he was still hungry and returned for another helping. Subsequently as he was washing his mess-tins for the second time a sergeant who probably recognised his exceptionally short hair accused him of eating two meals and had him arrested.

Two of the peacocks unceremoniously escorted him to the guardhouse, where he had been so many times before he thought it was part of the training. He was then advised that he would be formally charged the following morning.

That night as Billy was languishing in the cell with other birds of a feather, he related his predicament to driver Shaw, who volunteered his help. Shaw suggested that Billy inform the OC that he borrowed his used mess-tins outside the cookhouse and after cleaning them went in for lunch. Shaw said to tell him that the sergeant must have observed you cleaning them on both occasions and understandably assumed that you had two meals.

“But you were in the guard house when it happened,” Billy responded. “That’s ok,” replied the co-conspirator, “I’ll be out of here before you are marched in tomorrow morning and there are so many people coming and going in this place that these stupid gits will never figure it out.”

Driver HawksfordT19104164 Driver Hawksford Sir", the accused advised after being marched in front of the OC by the CSM. The sergeant was then marched in and gave his testimony, before being dismissed. “What have you to say for yourself?” The OC asked. “Not guilty sir,” came the smart reply. “Explain your self,” suggested the OC, at which time the culprit went into his rehearsed recitation. “I can see Driver Shaw outside the guardhouse right now and he can verify my story,” Billy exclaimed. The OC who had obviously been a boy scout, asked Billy in a fatherly manner if he could honestly say that he didn’t have two meals. (As if anyone would admit to such a serious breach of the army commandments!) The accused, trying to avoid sounding sarcastic, replied in all sincerity that it was as much as he could do to eat one army meal a day. The OC deliberated for a minute and announced, “I will give you the benefit of the doubt young man – case dismissed.” Unfortunately he never saw driver Shaw again and therefore couldn’t thank him.

Free again, Billy immediately went to the gym to find out about the posting to Germany and was advised that he had been replaced with a substitute. The sergeant explained there were always additional names on the bottom of the posting list and if anyone didn’t show up at roll call for any reason a replacement was selected from the reserves. Fortunately Billy managed to bid his buddy farewell and waited his turn for the next posting.

With the knowledge of how the posting system worked Billy patiently awaited one to his liking. He would find out where the postings were going from a friend in the office and bide his time, which was another reason for his lengthy stay at Yeovil. Finally his name came up on a posting to Halifax and assuming it was in Nova Scotia Canada, reported to the gym and found himself in Halifax Yorkshire the following day.

At the gym while awaiting transportation Billy got into a penny game of three-card blind brag, started with a bunch of Scottish lads. Blind brag involves betting in rotation without seeing the cards until all the players drop out leaving only two. Eventually one decides to stop and see the other, with the best hand winning. The interesting part about this ridiculous game is that the players can look at their cards at any time, but if they decide to continue playing it costs them double from then on.

After the game was in progress for a while, unusual things started to happen, which was a new experience for Billy, who was weaned on gambling. While the betting was taking place some of the players’ friends looked at their cards and signalled to them, and after a while almost all the players were being tipped off, to whether they had a good or a bad hand. This skull-duggery was conducted so amateurishly that he couldn’t believe his eyes and had no alternative but to decide to withdraw from the game. However, while he was playing out his hand, one of the Scottish spectators who was known to the group, looked at all the hands and tapped him on the back.

Not knowing if the tap meant he had a good hand or a bad one, he was forced to look and pleased to see it was good. Now the question was whether he was being set up and someone else had a better hand, or whether the informer decided to be his partner. He had to play the hand to find out and indeed he had a partner. This arrangement was like betting on a fixed prize-fight with a bunch of crooks and he was the only one being advised who was going to win. If he didn’t have the best hand he received two taps on the back and dropped out the game. This continued on until he had all the money, which was just over a pound and equal to a weeks pay in those days.

About 5 minutes after the game finished, when Billy returned to his original position in the gym, his Scottish partner came over and casually engaged him in small talk. Anticipating the visit he surreptitiously transferred a neatly folded 10 bob note while shaking hands, which concluded the discussion and dissolved the partnership. On reflection Billy reasoned that the scheming Scottish lads would never suspect one of their own tipping off an Englishman and they were probably so embroiled in their own unscrupulous activity that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. He was grateful for their contribution, in addition to the insight into people and gambling. Apparently high intrigue is not confined to large amounts of money and one has never finished learning!

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Out of genuine respect for the hardworking friendly warm people of Yorkshire, Billy sincerely hopes that his observations of Halifax will not be offensive.

The scene at the Halifax RASC camp in 1947, which was located at Ovenden Park a few miles north of the town, was like a really old black and white movie, completely devoid of colour. The soot from the nearby industry blanketed the whole area and everything including the hills overlooking the camp and the grass in the park, were the same muddy grey colour. The dark stonewalls separating the fields contributed to the stark scene and the dampness from the fine misty drizzle penetrated his bones. It was the winter of Billy’s discontent.

On the first weekend he couldn’t wait to get away from the camp and decided to investigate the town. He had no appreciation for the old magnificent architecture and was totally unimpressed with his new surroundings. To add to his disillusionment he returned through a heavy industrial area, which looked like Dante’s Inferno. The factories and foundries responsible for the discoloration of the area were in full swing, with fire and sparks blazing away and chimneys belching out black smoke. Large pieces of iron and steel of all descriptions lay around the landscape waiting their turn in the ovens and the whole place resembled a huge untidy noisy junkyard. He had never seen anything so unsightly and was appalled.

Back at the miserable camp he was determined to make the best of his situation and settled into the new billet, which was a concrete single story structure with holes intended for a door and windows. No carpet, no furniture, no sheets, no pillowcases or pillows and only a pot-bellied stove for comfort. Furniture did appear in the billet one day when the general was expected to visit and was returned to storage forthwith. The soldiers committed no crimes justifying these pitiful conditions resembling the dark ages and it’s amazing how low the acceptable standards for other ranks were in those days. What on earth did he do to deserve this place he asked himself - He had committed no crime, which was discovered. And then he remembered that it was his own entire fault for scheming the posting to Halifax, assuming it was in Nova Scotia.

The Ivy House PubRather than curse the darkness he decided to make the best of a bad situation and investigated the local amenities. Within a stones throw of the camp there was ‘The Ivy House’ pub and a small general store where he would purchase fags one at a time for 1 or 2 pennies when he was broke. There was also a NAAFI, inside the camp which was a one-room arrangement with bare tables and chairs and wooden hatches separating the servers from the recipients of the tea and wads – The hatches were specially designed to prevent the soldiers from seeing the female face behind the voice and was an effective obstacle to fraternisation. The ladies were occasionally observed outside the NAAFI building and in addition to a reputation for not being raving beauties; many of them were old enough to be grand mothers and few soldiers attempted to date an unseen face behind the hatch. The only other place with a potential for making whoopee was the cookhouse, which had a wooden floor and doubled as a dance hall on occasions - Paradise Island it was not!

Billy always suffered from ‘Athlete’s Foot’, which was getting progressively worse, probably as a result of the primitive hygienic conditions at the camp. Having a mind that was always attuned to opportunities he decided to try and turn this unfortunate medical condition into an advantage. He then started walking as much as possible and purposely not changing his socks for days. He went to the first dance at the camp where three soldiers and two girls sat around looking at each other while a gramophone churned out old-fashioned music. He ingratiated himself to the lesser of the two evils and danced the night away, walking the young lady home to exacerbate the condition of his feet.

Reporting to the medical office the following morning with an exaggerated hobble the invalid presented his bleeding toes which were a horrible sight resembling raw meat ready for the grill. He had to plead his case to a medical orderly, because it was the doctor’s day off and he wondered if he had suffered all this discomfort for nothing. The challenge now was to convince the medical orderly to do his bidding and with the best-anguished looking face he could contrive, he explained that this problem never existed until he started to wear boots. In actuality although the boots were not ideal for dancing they were quite comfortable and really practical for army life, but he just didn’t like the look of them and also didn’t like wearing gaiters. He pleaded with the orderly to give him something to relieve the pain and also excuse him from the offending footwear.

It was his lucky day because the medical orderly also suffered from Athlete’s Foot, but admitted that he had never suffered as badly as Billy, - who knew exactly why! The orderly was very sympathetic and prescribed the best he could, which was to provide him with powder, suggest he change his socks as often as possible and keep his feet dry. The orderly told him that the doctor signs everything he places in front of him and he would make out the necessary paperwork for excused boots and tuck it in the pile for the doctor the following day.

No BootsBilly was delighted when he was subsequently handed the signed piece of paper officially declaring that he was excused boots. And so with the first smile on his face since he entered the camp, he immediately presented the paper to the Quarter Master Sergeant who exchanged his boots and gaiters for a nice pair of shoes. Billy felt like he had accomplished something really important.

No more boning big unsightly boots and no more baggy trousers from the gaiters. Billy was hoping that he would also be excused from guard duty, because he wouldn’t be properly dressed – But no such luck even though he looked a little out of place in his shoes. The strangest thing is that the whole time he was in the army he was never challenged to produce the paper showing he was excused boots. Had he known that he would have ditched the boots a long time before!

The next time Billy was on vehicle guard duty, he was standing on the pathway leading to the NAAFI in the afternoon, when a girl carrying two shopping bags approached from the main gate. "Halt! Who goes there?," he commanded in his best military tone, recalled from one of the old movies. "Joyce from the NAAFI" came the reply. "Step forward and be recognized," he ordered and Joyce complied in the spirit of the occasion. This was the first time he had set eyes on a NAAFI girl and he was delighted to see that she didn’t have horns.

She was in fact quite young and not altogether unattractive, so he carried her bags to the NAAFI and made arrangements to meet her at 11.10 pm that evening.

Instead of drinking tea and sitting around the potbelly stove with the other lads after being relieved at 11 pm, he quietly opened a back window in the guardhouse and crawled out. True to her word the girl was waiting at the back door to the NAAFI and the courting couple strolled around the camp getting to know one another. That night the temperature dropped drastically forcing the couple to find shelter to keep warm. The only place they could find was an empty billet, exactly the same as the type he was assigned to, with holes where the door and windows should be. They stood in a corner holding each other closely in an attempt to keep warm and further their relationship, but it was to no avail, because the building offered no respite from the bitter cold. Finally Billy reluctantly escorted the girl back to the NAAFI, climbed back in the guardhouse window and took a place around the potbellied stove with a mug of hot tea. He never thought it possible that he would ever be pleased to be in a guardhouse and his existence was starting to resemble a nightmare.

Billy returned to Halifax in 1992 and would you believe it was still drizzling when he entered Overton Park. However he was astonished to find that the industry no longer existed and the hillside and parks having been washed for many years by the rain were now as green as grass should be! The camp was demolished and abandoned in the 50s and only concrete bases of the buildings remain as evidence of the past.

The area is still a park where people walk their dogs and The Ivy House and the small store were still there. Billy was tempted to enter the store and ask for a woodbine, but thought better of it. The buildings around the park and in the town are still the same grey colour, which is typical of Yorkshire and it’s any ones guess why!

An ex-Yorkshire man now living in New Zealand advise Billy that after the heavy industry closed down in the 60s and 70s and the chimneys stopped pouring out smoke, the black sheep up on the moors were revealed to be white. The soot had discoloured their fleece.

The ex-soldier soaked up some of the more pleasant history of Halifax in the nearby Imperial Hotel, which dates back to the 1800s and enjoyed a splendid meal in the hotel’s Wallis Simpson restaurant. A far cry, but only a stone’s throw from the camp at Ovenden Park, which was the low point of his army service and a long time ago.

•Note: In 1771 Lt. Governor Michael Franklin of Nova Scotia travelled to northern England to seek immigrants. He was looking for skilled farmers who could take up lands formally cultivated by the displaced Acadian minority, and who could counterbalance growing republican sentiment within both Nova Scotia and the Colonies to the south. For five years, until the British Government began to grow alarmed at the scale of emigration to North America, agents actively recruited settlers in Yorkshire.

•The first of these Yorkshire emigrants arrived in 1772 aboard the Duke of York. This vessel departed Liverpool on March 16, 1772 with 62 passengers, and reached Fort Cumberland on May 21, 1772. On board were Charles Dixon, Thomas Anderson, George Bulmer, John Trenholm and others. During the period 1773-1775 additional vessels left for Nova Scotia, the largest number arriving during the spring of 1774, when 9 ships carried settlers from England to Halifax. In all, more than 1,000 people emigrated from Yorkshire.

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WWll Poster

Life is stranger than fiction, especially in the darkness, which is a great equalizer and levels the playing field, so to speak. It’s said that we are all the same upside down, which can also apply in the dark. Back in 1947 in Yorkshire, Billy the British soldier was being transported to a new camp in the back of a lorry with his full kit and a number of other unfortunate men in uniform. It was a three-hour journey from Halifax to the Drax area and not only night-time, but also one of those very dark nights when the visibility was almost zero with out a light. The ride was very uncomfortable, because the hard floor was numbing his posterior and every time the lorry hit a bump in the road, everyone and everything in the back became airborne with the backpacks and kit-bags jumping all over the place. The back of the lorry was covered with a tarpaulin, with the exception of the area over the tailgate, where the men could gaze out and see absolutely nothing.

A few miles into the journey the lorry stopped, the tailgate was lowered and a bunch of ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) girls piled in. It was too dark to authenticate that they were actually ATS, but there was no question that they were female. These ladies climbed their way through the soldiers and kit-bags and made themselves comfortable in the back of the lorry, as the tailgate came up and the vehicle continued. There was a girl seated next to our hero by the tailgate and not wishing to be anti-social, he engaged her in chitchat, or chatted her up, whichever expression you prefer. The scene was like a black and white movie without the white and an intriguing situation to say the least.

Further down the road it started to rain and on this particular evening it came lashing down and entered the area above the tailgate, prompting the chivalrous one to open his groundsheet and cover the girl and him. The girl did not object and was thankful for the gentleman’s protection, evidenced by the closeness in the confined quarters - The rain continued and they got closer.

The closer they got the warmer they became and less clothing was required. It wasn’t easy for them in the darkness, but they displayed exceptional fortitude. They were like erotic magnets with hearts pounding as they remained beneath the surface and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was in order to compensate for the lack of oxygen. After lip locking for a period of time the amorous one was curious to learn more about his silent companion and using the only method available to him in the darkness, ascertained that the lady was considerably larger than he had hoped.

Realising that this entanglement - and the word entanglement is used advisedly, would most likely be of short duration and probably less than 20 minutes, he justified the continuation of the activity with the rotund one based on the theory that it would adversely affect his health if he denied her the comfort she deserved. In the tactile world of darkness where imagination, perception, creativity and innovation are so important, the natural senses become more acute and excited with emotion. In the heat of the moment they were completely oblivious to the kit-bags rolling around, the continuous rain outside and the bumping of the vehicle actually added to their pleasure. Closer and closer they became in the darkness without a thought to what their respective companion looked like or even exchanging names. It was an exceptional display of uncontrolled abandonment.

The true meaning of the word dexterity can only be understood after trying to retrieve something from the back pocket of a pair of trousers, while wearing an overcoat in confined quarters, tangled up with a healthy ATS girl in the back of an army lorry in the darkness. Had they got any closer they would have to be pealed apart and it was comforting to know that a plea of mistaken identity would be plausible under the circumstances. It was like a nocturnal fantasy, which appears unbelievably real.

But as the vehicle came to a screeching halt at the destination, propelling the baggage all over the occupants in the back of the lorry, the romantic one was awoken from his slumber and wicked delight. Although the entanglement with the ATS girl was real, part of the story was a dream after the girls departed earlier on. Billy can no longer differentiate between the fantasy and the reality and quite honestly, he prefers it that way!

The tailgate came down and an NCO shouted, "Everybody out!" prompting the weary soldiers who were half asleep to collect their thoughts and search for their baggage. With backpacks, kit-bags and rifles in tow, the travellers shuffled along through the darkness to the usual austere billets and settled in for another fun night in the British Army. Needless to say that no one thought of feeding the poor buggers!

"It is better to light one small candle, than curse the darkness."---Confucius.

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The Soldier and the Sergeant

The first week after arriving at the new camp south east of Selby in the rural Drax area of Yorkshire in 1947, Billy the young British soldier was in trouble again and placed on 3 days CB (Confined to Barracks). As part of the punishment, he had to perform menial tasks each morning at a cookhouse in a camp further down the road, under the direction of a tall thin efficacious sergeant. To add to his problems he also had a minor altercation with the sergeant, which was not a good beginning at his new abode.

During the Saturday afternoon, Billy became aware that the camp was deserted, so he decided to ignore his CB and take a walk to the nearest hamlet, where he understood there was a dance every Saturday evening at the church hall.

The hamlet was a cluster of about 10 buildings consisting of a church with a recreational hall attached, a café, a pub and a few other structures. Having nothing in particular to do before the dance started, he took advantage of the beautiful weather and the peaceful outdoors by biding his time in the nearby park. As evening drew near he observed with interest a number of young girls in party dresses arriving at the church along a footpath between the benches in the park and concluded that he was privileged to preview the evenings dance partners.

The girl, who caught his eye, was different from the rest, didn’t use makeup, didn’t need it and dressed in typical country clothes, which consisted of a tweed suit and low heal shoes. She was not glamorous by any standards, but was an outstanding beauty in every respect. Mesmerized - his eyes followed her through the park, across the road and into the church. If love at first sight was for real, this was it and he began to contemplate the possibility of meeting her at the dance.

Negative thoughts entered his mind as he considered his bumps, lumps and blemishes and began to wonder what a stunning girl like this would want with a short young lad with little hair and definitely not the leading man type. However the negative thoughts passed and a positive attitude took over, as he began to plan his strategy for meeting this exceptional young lady at the dance.

Drawing from his experience in such matters he decided that the best plan was to enter the dance hall early before the competition was aware of her existence and dazzle her with footwork. The hall filled up very fast and couples linked to whirl around the floor to the sound of the music, as Billy searched the room for the target of his affections. The second dance started and he considered the possibility that she may not be attending, particularly by the way she was dressed, so not wishing to waste his Saturday night, selected a lesser mortal to trip the light fantastic. After circling the floor a couple of times and engaging in small talk, he was fairly confident of companionship for the evening, but there was no chemistry, so he didn’t linger.

Another dance came and went and still no sign of the girl in the tweed suit. By this time the romantic young man was somewhat dejected and decided that if he couldn’t have the girl of his choice, he would rather be alone. Disregarding all the other girls, he positioned himself with a clear view of the door where they were entering and contemplated the best strategy if and when she appeared. It was not unlike a scene from a Woody Allen movie, with the anxious soldier considering the best approach - Should he rush across the floor to beat out the competition, or a less obvious saunter with the casual air of the bon vivant and risk losing her?

To his delight he noticed the natural beauty in the next room through a small window and knew that she was about to enter the hall. Without even thinking he was face to face with her within seconds and she accepted his invitation to dance. The next few minutes went by so fast that he was much too occupied to think about his good fortune, because as they made their way around the floor he noticed the tall sergeant from the cookhouse, who knew he was on CB and could easily identify him by his practically bald head.

Instinctively Billy started to crouch as he continued dancing and explained the dilemma to his partner, who was slightly taller than him, but even more attractive close up. “Would you like to leave?” the girl asked as they danced towards to exit door. He was out of the door like a flash and to his amazement, followed by the girl. They then joined hands and skipped down the narrow country road, laughing with gay abandon, as though they had known each other all their lives. It was an exhilarating feeling, which can only be described as a magic moment!

On the way down the winding road to the girl’s house they talked incessantly and he became aware that she was not only exceptionally beautiful, but also had a wonderful personality and disposition. A number of times during the evening, he felt like pinching himself to confirm that he wasn’t dreaming. Not only did he find it difficult to believe that the outstanding girl decided to leave with him, but also that they had established such a rapport, considering that they had only met a few minutes before leaving the dance and they didn’t even know each other’s names. It was all very overwhelming!

To cut a long story short, at the end of the evening Billy returned to the road heading to the camp in semi darkness. A cyclist approached and he attempted to hitch a ride. The man on the bike was none other than the tall sergeant, who stopped and beckoned him towards the luggage rack over the rear wheel. It was a very large bike, suitable to the size of the sergeant, who peddled away without difficulty. Arriving at the camp the sergeant bid Billy good night as he scampered away undetected. “Thanks for the ride,” shouted Billy as he disappeared in the darkness. Could it be that the sergeant didn’t recognise him with his hat on at night, or was he really a nice guy and gave him a break? Billy would like to believe the latter!

The following week Billy was posted out of the area and never saw the girl who made his heart throb again. Later he borrowed an army vehicle one Sunday afternoon and drove from Halifax to track her down, but he was unable to find her or anyone else who knew her and was forced to give up. He considered additional visits in army vehicles, but decided against it when he encountered civilian police roadblocks looking for black marketeers of petrol, which was still rationed at the time.

In those days with telephones a rarity, computers unheard of and public transportation in the country leaving much to be desired, communication was difficult, to say the least.

In 1947 the Drax area was all country with farmland, hamlets and villages. The army Return Stores Depot, RSD was a huge complex of sheds storing army surplus goods and equipment shipped in from all over the country by train to a dedicated rail line going directly into the RSD. Soldiers from the Pioneer Corp camp just up the road and some civilians from the surrounding area worked in the stores and Billy’s small RASC attachment provided the trucks to shunt the material from the trains to the sheds.

Billy was only stationed there a couple of weeks, which was not long enough to confirm the rumors that sheets were being burned and valuable equipment was being destroyed at the RSD. Word had it that the civilian population had protested the burning of the sheets, which they and the Ku Klux Klan would have appreciated. Had Billy known of the protest he would have also joined in, not having seen white textiles since he was called up.

Convinced that valuable stuff was being destroyed, he decided to find a better use for it. Acting on another rumour that a farmer close to their camp paid good money for such items, he drove out the RSD gate one day with a bunch of large heavy spanners.

Presenting his booty to the farmer and expecting to negotiate a fair price, he was ushered into a barn where he was shown a particularly large container full of similar items. “I would like to sell you some,” said the farmer to the confused soldier.

Explaining that he had been buying the spanners from the soldiers for years and had no idea what to do with them. Deciding that there was no way he could overcome that objection, he inquired about petrol, only to be shown another shed with the largest tank he had ever seen, and advised that the tank was full and there was nowhere else to store it.

Billy knew a losing situation when he saw one and excusing himself from the friendly farmer, retreated with his tail between his legs carrying the heavy spanners. They were now a liability vs. an asset, because he didn’t know what else to do with them, so he decided to dump them in the farmers duck pond. He was tempted to take a few duck eggs for his trouble, but there was nowhere to cook them.

Secretly hoping to find the lady in the tweed suit, he returned to the Drax area in 1992 to bathe in nostalgia and possibly find out what the farmer did with the spanners – the ones in the shed - not the ones in the duck pond! Billy started out from Selby on a road to the hamlet, which he had taken many times before back in 1947 and was astounded to find that the road came to a complete end in the middle of nowhere.

All he could see in front of him were hedges and mountains. Questioning a nearby resident who was comparatively new to the area, he was told that the mountains in front of the road were really not mountains and just large piles of slag covered with green paint.

The resident went on to explain that a monstrous generating station now occupies practically the whole of the Drax area and it’s the largest coal-fired power station in Western Europe, with at least a dozen humongous chimneys and a similar amount of green painted mountains.

Not wishing to leave with out seeing something he could reminisce about, Billy drove several miles south hoping to find evidence of the railway line, which used to enter the RSD. This time he was lucky and observed the rail line entering a field and going directly towards a mountain. It was as though the slag was deposited directly on top of the rail line and Billy wondered if they had done the same thing to the RSD, because removing all those tools and equipment would present a monumental task and it was all used material. The fact that the RASC detachment with the trucks moved out in 1947, lends credence to the theory that nothing was moved from then on.

Billy was unable to find anyone who remembered the hamlet or the RSD, because like the young lady in the Tourist Information Office in nearby Selby, everyone he talked to was too young to remember the areas history. Driving towards Chapeltown Billy couldn’t help thinking that the farmer no longer had to be concerned about what to do with the spanners, because they were probably all under a mountain of slag.

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Chapletown

In 1947, Billy the British soldier arrived in a small Yorkshire town know as Chapeltown, a few miles north of Sheffield, where he was attached to a Polish Resettlement Corp PRC.

The British established the Polish Resettlement Corp PSC when the Polish army was dissolved after the war ended in 1945. It was intended to be a non-operational unit of the British army funded directly by the War Office. According to the records, the purpose of the PRC was to train the Polish troops who did not wish to return to a communist Poland for a civilian life, learning the English language and different trades so that they could find work. They stayed in uniform until 1948 when it was disbanded.

The so-called uniform worn by these men was standard British issue, except for modifications made by them and they didn’t wear boots and gaiters. Uniform alterations included padding the shoulders of the blouse with different size triangles cut from a blanket, facing the opening of the blouse with matching material and inserting material in the side of the trousers to accomplish bell-bottoms. They did not wear hats, badges or insignias and were easily identifiable and not confused with the British soldiers.

The camp was situated on a high elevation overlooking the town and the gradient was so steep that the road leading up to it had to zigzag up the hill. It was a relatively small camp consisting of a number of temporary wooden billets. An army luxury Billy was now becoming accustomed to. There was a cookhouse, washrooms and latrines and that was it; there wasn’t anything else, not even a NAAFI to get a cup of tea and a bun. Another resort for the rabble!

To occupy his time Billy decided to further his education by studying the Polish language and before long he could communicate fluently with words like: Witaj, obiad, kolacja, dobra zupa, nie mam pianiedzy, and chze misie siusiu, which loosely translated means: Hello, lunch, dinner, I’m broke and where’s the toilet?

His duties involved transporting the Polish soldiers by lorry to the Howden moors each morning, drive back to the camp to collect their lunch, which they ate on the moors and then return them to the camp later in the afternoon. Now what on earth were they doing on the Yorkshire moors all day long, you might ask? And the answer was, looking for unexploded bombs. As previously explained the reason for the PRC was to train these men for civilian life, so it came as a surprise to Billy that there was such a demand for demolition experts.

In reality he would drop them off at a certain location on the moors in the morning, where they would walk over a hill and spend the entire day playing ball games, cards and just talking. They would emerge from the other side of the hill at noontime to have a relaxed luncheon over looking the Derwent waters, before being transported back to camp. What on earth were the authorities thinking, sending these people out without any equipment to look for bombs? Did they think they were stupid because they spoke another language? Sounds like another game of silly buggers and it makes you wonder whom the stupid ones were!

Not too many of the Polish soldiers spoke fluent English, but the ones who did were friendly and he got to know a number of them very well. One in particular was the official interpreter and English teacher, who was a student when he was interned in a German concentration camp for a period of 5 years. He witnessed his parents being killed by the Germans and was personally shot through the back of his hand, damaging the ligament to one of his fingers rendering it useless. At a time before most people were aware of the Holocaust atrocities, this gentleman related many horror stories to Billy, which he would read about in subsequent years.

One day when he was in the cookhouse enjoying dobra zupa, ‘good soup’ with his teacher friend, a heated argument erupted between another man and his friend. They were both shouting in Polish and the man who he did not know placed his hand upright on the table, as if to comply with the teachers command. At that moment the teacher, who was eating with a pointed knife, stabbed it through the centre of the man’s hand, pinning it to the wooden table.

After the wounded man exited the teacher explained that the man was a German collaborator during the war, who along with others, assisted the Germans interrogating Poles and suggested things like blocked gas masks. The teacher also mentioned that instead of staying in England, he and his friend, who was in the concentration camps 2 years longer than him, intended to return to Poland and make it their life’s work to track down these collaborators.

On a lighter note, and wishing to bring some fun into his life at Chapeltown, Billy made a temporary modification to his uniform with shoulder pads, removed his shoulder insignia and leaving his hat behind, ventured out to the town with his friend looking like any other Polish soldier. They had a pint in a local pub and made there way towards the park where they met two young ladies. Billy’s female companion was very acceptable and everything was going well, except that when they initially met she assumed that he was Polish and for the hell of it he complicated the situation by talking to her in broken English. However as the evening progressed the Polish act became a strain. Now the sensitive soldier was reluctant to reveal himself, concerned that the lady would assume he was making a fool of her and take offence. He enjoyed the pleasure of her company so much that at the last minute he was tempted to confess and suggest another meeting, but the coward couldn’t muster enough courage and they parted company never to meet again. Another ship passing in the night!

On the subject of courage and the fair sex, Billy got into a conversation with a female telephone operator and established that they were both about the same age and height. Over the phone he was very brave and also ascertained that she was good looking and had a nice figure. He was honest about his own appraisal, which was acceptable to her, and they arranged a rendezvous outside the movie house in Sheffield the following Saturday afternoon.

The young lady also informed him that he could view her photograph, which was in the middle of a photographer’s window on the way to the movie house. Arriving by train from Chapeltown Saturday afternoon, Billy anxiously made a beeline for the photographer’s shop, confirming that the girl was not exaggerating her appearance. Then for no apparent reason on his way to the meeting, trepidation set in and he was concerned that he wouldn’t have an opportunity to evaluate her before committing.

He was obviously over sensitive and decided to allay his anxiety by walking past the movie house without stopping, attempt to see what she looked like and then return.

As Billy entered the crowd outside the movie house a beautiful girl stepped forward in his direction with a look of recognition on her face. Billy was now programmed to continue walking, which he did and realizing that the girl exceeded his expectations, quickly turned around to find her. No such luck, she had departed, never to be seen again! He searched the area thoroughly and couldn’t understand how she could disappear so quickly. Where did she go? How did she go? - He will never know!

One thing for sure is that he kicked himself all the way back to camp and repeated the punishment frequently. It was a classic case of stupid boy doesn’t meet girl!

The sentimental journey to Chapeltown in 1992 was another disappointment, because many things were very different. How dare they change things in just 45 years! The mountainous side of the town where the camp was located was completely covered with houses making it impossible to identify exactly where the camp used to be.

There was a large supermarket at the main intersection, which was another reminder of the passage of time. The one feature that had not changed and was recognizable was the unique entrance to the park, where he practiced his broken English on the unsuspecting female.

Finding the pub where Billy and his Polish friend enjoyed an occasional glass of ale presented a problem, because he only remembered one on a stretch of road of about 300 yards and now there were three. The fact that all the pubs appeared equally as old was evidence to the fact that his memory had failed him. The first pub at the beginning of the road was so different from his image that he rejected it out of hand. He wasn’t too sure about the next one, but he popped in for a drink anyway and before he finished his beer he knew it wasn’t the place. The last one was closer to his image, but still not recognizable, so again he entered and ordered a drink. He searched the area with his eyes like a detective and realized that walls from smaller rooms had been knocked down to make one large one, which was not unusual. Typically the young barmaid knew nothing about the anything and was even less interested, so he sat down in a corner by the entrance to enjoy his drink. Within minutes he became aware of the unusual seating arrangement, which consisted of very unique benches around a table. Immediately he was overcome by a feeling he had never experienced before in his life and although he was not religious, he knew it was spiritual. He then realized that this was the place were he sat with his friend 45 years before, only then it was a much smaller room. The experience was an epiphany!

Trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together before leaving, Billy crossed the street to study the pub’s exterior, but couldn’t come to grips why it differed so much from his image. He engaged a lady of mature years in conversation and she recalled that they altered the appearance of the outside of the pub when they renovated the inside. The fact that they did such a good job maintaining an old pub appearance accounted for his confusion.

Having resolved that important problem, but still yearning for a little more nostalgia, Billy stopped an elderly gentleman and pointing his finger towards the houses on the mountain asked, “Do you remember the Polish soldiers camp up on the hill?”- “You mean the German prisoner of war camp,” came the sharp reply. Attempting to continue the conversation Billy told him that he didn’t realize that it was once a German prisoner of war camp and without so much as by your leave, the old gentleman shuffled on. It’s anybody’s guess what he took exception to, but Billy got the feeling that the man must have thought he was a returning German ex-POW, which didn’t please him. With his thirst for nostalgia quenched, Billy rather sadly stole away into the night.

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Sergeant Major Cartoon

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.

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Old Army Vehicle

Summer at Catterick camp 1947 - Billy was goofing off talking to his corporal friend in the company office and in walks a tall handsome officer, a picture of sartorial elegance with his splendid uniform and leather accessories. A stunning private ATS girl, whose natural attributes would be apparent covered in a potato sack, followed him. You might say that they looked like Barbie and Ken, because that’s what they did look like and they deserve those names for the rest of the story.

"I wish to borrow a car for the afternoon," announced Ken.

"Yes Sir" replied the corporal, who then asked Ken where he was going and how many people would be involved.

"Darlington" Ken replied "and there will only be myself and my secretary".

The corporal made out the worksheet and handed it to Billy, saying to Ken, "Your vehicle will be here presently sir." Billy went for the ‘Tilly,’ which was the British army’s answer to the Jeep for small run about vehicles and was a bare bones car with a removable canvas top and celluloid side windows.

"Thank you, let me have the keys, I won’t require you any more," Ken uttered in a dismissive tone.

Wow! - now Billy had to say no to Ken twice and officers don’t like to hear that!

"I can’t do that", advised Billy in his best respectful voice reserved for officers. "The car doesn’t have keys, it only has a switch permanently attached to the dash board" continued Billy. "Also I am assigned to the vehicle and no one else is authorised to drive it," Billy concluded with satisfaction.

Ken did a smart about turn, marched back into the office and proceeded to explain to the corporal that he did not wish to be chauffeured and require a vehicle, which he could drive himself. The corporal politely explains to Ken that it doesn’t work that way and that all army vehicles in the RASC are assigned to drivers, who receive the necessary training, to take full responsible for the vehicle and it’s maintenance.

Ken returned to the vehicle with an annoyed look on his face and Billy responded with a ‘told you so’ look. Barbie and Ken climbed into the back of the Tilly with the top rolled down and off they went on this beautiful summer afternoon. Arriving at Darlington about 15 miles away, Ken asked a policeman for directions to a stationers and the attractive couple entered the store leaving Billy in the car.

Very shortly afterwards they emerged with no visible evidence of a purchase and Ken directed Billy to drive to the picture palace, where all three of them entered, compliments of the exalted one. The military trio seated themselves in the back row, one each side of Barbie in an almost empty cinema and enjoyed a few hours of entertainment. Things were more relaxed in those days, when there was always two films, the news and an interval for ice cream – And don’t let anyone tell you that they didn’t put the heat up 10 minutes before the interval to improve ice-cream sales!

When the working day was over, the trio returned to the Tilly and Ken insisted on driving back to camp. At that point Billy would normally follow army procedures which he knew well and have the satisfaction of asking the officer to sign the back of the worksheet and take full responsibility for the vehicle. However this time for whatever reason he elected to avoid a confrontation and climbed into the back seat with Barbie. Yes, we know what you are thinking and you may be partially right! Billy looked up at the sky, which appeared to be ominous, and asked Ken if he wanted the top up, because it looked like rain. Ken replied in the negative and off they went back to camp, with the officer chauffeuring the driver and the ATS girl who, in case you didn’t get the picture, was exceptionally attractive!

Convinced that it was going to rain, Billy was ready to pull the canvas top over him and Barbie, (how could he leave her out!) when before you could utter another ‘told you so,’ a dark cloud opened up and drowned everything beneath it. Instead of stopping to put the top on, Ken kept driving and the rain continued, with the two in the back seat snuggled up under the dry canvas. Yes, he was tempted to try his luck, but not sensing the right vibes, decided against it.

At the camp Barbie and Ken climbed out of the car looking less elegant than their arrival and departed without a word spoken. Ken was absolutely soaked, looking like a wet fish wearing a Sam brown, with his beautifully tailored uniform never to be the same again. The trip was an embarrassment to all concerned and a strain on Billy, because there was absolutely no dialog the whole afternoon except a few directions from Ken. Barbie never opened her mouth, confirming the suspicion that she wasn’t chosen for her eloquence.

Billy could understand Barbie and Ken’s unfortunate tryst with the exception of why Ken insisted on driving back and not stopping to put the top on. Could it be that he was sulking because his day with Barbie didn’t go according to plan and was he just too stupid to get out of the rain? Little did Ken know that had he crossed Billy’s palm with a little silver, he would have gladly performed his disappearing act for the afternoon!

The saying "two's company, three's a crowd" is very profound!

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Map of Catterick

In 1947, much to Billy’s consternation, he was wasting away his valuable young life performing dull uninteresting menial tasks at Catterick camp in Yorkshire.

Not seeing eye to eye with everything in the army, and in particular the discipline, the first part of his Military Service was not particularly enjoyable. He experienced difficulty accepting the life in a regimented military world where the highlight of the day was sitting around a potbellied stove in the evening, spit shining boots, when not being called upon to do guard duty all night and assume the normal responsibilities the following day. He was a firm believer in life being what you make it and it wasn’t difficult to improve if you were prepared to risk the consequences.

One thing the mechanical transport branch of the army had was plenty of vehicles and although the military frowned on them being used for personal transportation, Billy and some of his friends borrowed them on occasions to brighten up their uninteresting khaki lives. A small ‘Tilly’ car was the vehicle of choice for a visit to the corporal’s home in Middlesbrough on Christmas Eve and also a trip to a special canteen set up for the troops in the square at nearby Richmond on New Years Eve.

The New Years Eve party was a riot with almost everyone consuming more than their capacity of alcoholic beverage, with the exception Billy and a nice ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) girl, who he befriended and offered to escort home in his chariot at the end of the evening. Unfortunately when the happy group exited the canteen the vehicle was nowhere to be found, because some unscrupulous individuals purloined it. The partygoers realised that they had neglected to secure the vehicle by removing the rotor arm from the distributor per army regulations, which was particularly necessary for this vehicle, because there were no keys for the ignition switch, which was a permanent feature on the dashboard. So instead of driving back to camp in style, they were subjected to the indignity of piling into the back of the army’s duty truck with all the other soldier’s which was not exactly how Billy envisioned the evening’s outcome.

Losing the vehicle was not a concern, but the worksheet with the corporal’s name on it listing other unauthorised trips including Middlesbrough was in the vehicle and if it got into the wrong hands, heads would roll. Fortunately the vehicle was abandoned in the garrison complex after the joy riders did their thing and it was found the following day. It was a stroke of luck that Billy was the duty driver the day it was found and was sent out with another driver to retrieve the lost vehicle. At the site where the Tilly was abandoned, Billy made it his business to search the glove compartment before the other driver and squirreled away the incriminating worksheet before anyone could read it. Subsequently the corporal was charged with a lesser crime of losing a vehicle under his care and was demoted to a driver and reprimanded. Billy never saw the corporal again except for a few brief minutes and everyone else walked away free, but deprived of their personal transportation for a period of time.

Life was particularly tedious with no excursions to the outside world and confinement in this military regime was a real challenge to the soldier’s patience and endurance. Lacking the necessary funds and desire to take advantage of the other amenities in the garrison complex, Billy was now at the mercy of the local NAAFI (Navy, Army & Air Force Institutes) for diversion. This particular one was quite good as NAAFI’s go and in addition to the large room where soldiers could buy tea and cakes from a lady behind a hatch, which was designed to discourage relationships; there was a games room with a full size billiard table and ping-pong.

Once again Billy and his friend were called upon for guard duty, patrolling vehicles in the camp with an old Enfield rifle left over from WW1 or WW11. Either way the rifle was superfluous without bullets and who would have the gall to drive away an army vehicle anyway?

The two soldiers stopped outside the NAAFI to talk and decided that the vehicles were quite safe unsupervised and a game of table tennis was much more appealing than walking around the camp in the cold weather. They coaxed someone to open the NAAFI window in the games room, parked their rifles and coats outside and climbed in. They were having a merry old time propelling the little white ball back and forth until they spotted the guard sergeant marching in followed by a couple of corporals.

Sergeants normally didn’t frequent NAAFI’s, so they knew someone was in trouble and it wasn’t difficult to figure out exactly who it was. Before the NCOs returned from the eating area, the table tennis players disappeared out the window of the games room, into their coats and with rifle in hand vanished amongst the vehicles.

Finally they emerged from between the trucks to be told by the sergeant that they were observed playing table tennis in the NAAFI and disregarding their argument to the contrary, he placed them under arrest and threw them into the brig with all the other wayward souls. Eventually it came to light that there were two witnesses against them who were not aware that they were on guard duty that night. Normally the punishment for such an offence would be about 14 days CB (Confined to barracks), however Billy’s friend who was an old soldier,’ convinced him not to accept the OC’s punishment and request a Court Martial. The term ‘old soldier’ not only applied to someone having served many years in the British army but also implied wisdom acquired along the way. Billy did not question his friend’s military jurisprudence.

The old soldier’s reasoning for requesting a Court Martial was his conviction that he could persuade the witnesses to modify their story and say that they were not positive whom it was they saw in the NAAFI that night. The old soldier advised the witnesses’ that their recollection would not be called into question and an acquittal would be assured based on their uncertainty. The cooperative witnesses agreed to make the minor adjustment to their testimony supporting the accused and everyone felt confidant singing off the same song sheet.

The Court Martial was a very formal dramatic affair befitting the British army and everyone played his part like performers in a theatrical play.

The prisoners, who were assigned council from the Judge Advocate Generals office, were marched in front of a line of distinguished looking officers of various high ranks sitting behind a long table. Military legal decorum was at it’s best with serous expressions on everyone’s face and it was like watching a movie and playing the leading roll at the same time. The atmosphere in the room was so sombre, Billy wanted to remind the court that they hadn’t killed anyone and were only accused of playing table tennis.

The presiding judge read the charge and asked them how they pleaded. After an unequivocal "Not guilty sir," the proceedings commenced with the witnesses being marched in one at a time to give their evidence.

The first witness was the sergeant of the guard who testified that he searched the camp for the accused without success on the night in question and after speaking to the two witnesses in the NAAFI, placed the soldiers under arrest for leaving their post. The next individual to give evidence was one of the soldiers who stated that he observed the accused playing table tennis in the NAAFI, and when asked if he was certain, he hesitated and continued that he was not absolutely sure because he had a bad memory. On cross-examination he elaborated that it could have been someone else or even another night. - Only one more witness to go and so far there was no firm evidence that anyone had done anything wrong.

The last witness, the second soldier was marched in and stated that he remembered seeing the accused playing table tennis in the NAAFI that day and replied in the affirmative, when asked if he was sure beyond a reasonable doubt. That corroboration sounded their death knell, which was heard loud and clear.

After a recession when the judges summed up the testimony, the accused were marched back in and the presiding judge announced the verdict: "Guilty as charged, sentenced to 56 days detention." The gig was finally up and it was time to pay the piper - The fat lady sang and it was all over!

Naturally the table tennis players were anxious to know why the incriminating witness didn’t change his story in their favour as agreed and the answer turned out to be that the RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) got wind of the witnesses’ intensions and put the fear of Christ into them - One caved in and the other one didn’t. Apparently hell hath no fury like an RSM about to lose a Court Martial!

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The Soldier and the Duck

In 1947 Billy was found guilty by a Court Martial at Catterick Camp of playing table tennis in the NAAFI while on guard duty. The military considered this offence more serious than the capricious soldier and sentenced him to 56 days detention.

Bill Doyle, the Irish corporal escorting Billy and his co-conspirator from Catterick to Sowerby Bridge detention barracks by train, was a regular soldier, who had spent many years in the army, up and down the ranks and was friendly with the prisoners when he was a private. With Doyle footing the bill, they consumed their share of ale en-route and felt no pain by the time they reached their destination.

Sowerby Bridge detention barracks in Yorkshire was strategically located in an old mill at the bottom of a valley in this small industrial town. The hill on one side of the valley, was cut out to accommodate a railway line where rifle-toting guards patrolled daily and were known to shoot escaping inmates. The hill at the other side went up to a road and then further up to a canal, both cut into the hill and parallel with the barracks. The front of the barracks consisted of a large grey mill building, either side of the road, with an overhead walkway and large wooden gates. It was an in-hospitable fortress with a high fence of barbed wire around the perimeter, defying prisoners to escape.

On Sundays the inhabitants of the town would stand on the road overlooking the parade ground and watch the rifle drill, which was known by the troops as the hunger march, because it continued for hours before lunch. It was an exercise, which pushed the mental and physical endurance to the limits, but provided great entertainment for the spectators. A smart drill sergeant stood on a box in the centre of the parade ground and with a mighty voice, ordered the troops backwards, forwards and sideways at will. Rifle at the side, rifle on the shoulder, rifle over the head, regular time and double time - you name it and the sergeant had it covered. When Billy was finally released after serving his sentence, the rifle felt so light that he carried it over his head until he was out of sight of the Barracks, as a salute or a defiant gesture - He wasn’t sure which!

In addition to the parade ground, the barracks also included a rifle range where the inmates practiced with live ammunition. One time Billy had one of the guards who was patrolling the railway line in his sights and was very tempted to shoot him in the leg, but decided that they would easily find out who did it by counting the holes in the targets. The guards at the barracks were all sergeants; Large size gentlemen with necks as big as your waist and some with out necks. They all wore modified hats showing only a small peek over their eyes and flat in the front, resembling those worn by the German Waffen SS during WWll.

The inside accommodations of the barracks were interesting to say the least. On the second floor of the building wire structures resembling large cages were erected to enclose the prisoners and beds were neatly lined up on both sides. For the most part the cages were only used to contain the men in the evening, because work was the order of the day, when the drill sergeant needed to rest his vocal cords.

Scrubbing the wooden planks of the floor was the most popular pastime when not being marched around, resulting in the wood being worn away and nail heads sticking up. With little to occupy his mind, Billy pondered the maximum allowable nail head protrusion in the Kings Rules and Regulations. He felt that it was a reasonable consideration in view of the fact that the KRRs were added to so many times over the years that they covered every contingency in the army and then some. He had to keep his mind active to survive!

Naturally in an establishment of this kind, a certain amount of KRRs are necessary to maintain decorum, which he found to his dismay on the first day of residency.

"Three days bread and water for talking," the OC bellowed at Billy and he was out of the office as fast as he went in, with no opportunity to defend himself and his feet hardly touching the ground. Not a bad punishment under the circumstances for such an offence you may conclude, and Billy would probably agree had he been aware of the rule before the event. Or maybe he had been advised and couldn’t remember because he was under the influence on arrival.

The guards were not all that heartless and twice a day in the morning and afternoon, the prisoners were lined up in a row and given a cigarette, whether they smoked or not - No one was ever known to refuse! The guards watched the men closely as they smoked and invariably swayed on their feet from the intoxication. The un-smoked portion of the cigarettes were deposited in a bucket and although particular care was taken to assure compliance, prisoners were observed smoking part of their cigarette in the cage late in the evening. Curious to know why men take such risks considering the severe punishment of bread and water and solitary confinement, Billy asked one of the transgressors and was informed that the man’s yearning for a smoke in the evening far outweighed his fear of being caught. Apparently flints were smuggled in easily and razor blades to scratch a spark were available. Tinderboxes were made from the shavings of toothbrush handles and the smokers derived immense satisfaction from their ingenuity and beating the system.

But what about the duck, you may be thinking. Well if it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck and looks like a duck, it’s a duck, however because the duck in this story didn’t look like one he was treated with the same cordiality as all the other wayward prisoners. This young soldier who was either faking his comical behavior or was suffering from delusions, quacked away every evening and wobbled as he walked, but couldn’t get the desired recognition from the guards. He would stand inside the entrance of the cage after dinner every night, presumably quacking away for more food. He quack quacked here and quack quacked there and the guards completely ignored him, with one exception when he pleaded for additional food and was told to lay a few eggs. Rumour had it that the guards failed in a number of attempts to thwart his persuasion with a diet of bread and water and had given up on him. No doubt some of the inmates were tempted to tell him to keep the quacking down, but not knowing the nature of the species, did not wish to incur his disfavour.

Some inmates’ felt that he had been tormented enough, but the less sympathetic swapped jokes such as ducks flying upside down and quacking up and the duck telling the shopkeeper to put it on his bill, when asked how he wanted to pay. Two ducks walked into a bar and so on and so forth - It was endless, but provided a welcome respite from the rigid monotony.

Rising above the whole thing with a sense of humour, Billy followed orders and completed his servitude, which felt like an eternity. He had been deprived of entertainment, except for you know who, the radio and music, reading material and all contact with the outside world. He endured cuisine defying description and small portions guarantying hungry most of the time - Wretched transgressors who were not worthy of the crumbs from the sergeants’ table, which they would gladly have devoured given the opportunity.

At the railroad station awaiting transportation back to Catterick, Billy had mixed feelings of jubilation and anxiety and wouldn’t feel really free until he was miles away from the barracks. Also at the station was the drill sergeant who was going on leave and stopped by to exchange small talk. Then the duck waddled onto the platform quacking his usual tune.

"Donald’s - been - doing - that - for - 6 – months," announced the sergeant in a slow deep resonant voice.

"Did he present a problem for the guards?" he was asked.

"I don’t think he ruffled too many feathers," the sergeant concluded.

Back at Catterick Billy was given an important job maintaining the sergeants showers, which was a considerable improvement over his status at Sowerby Bridge, but didn’t present much of a future. Within a short period of time it became apparent that ex-detention barracks offenders were held in high esteem amongst the other ranks, which was probably akin to admiring train robbers etc. Within weeks corporal Doyle, who was the escort to Sowerby Bridge, was promoted to sergeant, Billy’s table tennis partner who accompanied him to the detention barracks was promoted to a lance corporal in the company police and Billy was assigned to the prestigious position of ‘General’s Driver’ with a potential promotion to full corporal.

Billy returned to Sowerby Bridge in 1992 hoping to confront remaining ex-sergeant guards who were known to run pubs in the town after they retired from the army. He was unable to locate any of these men, but received a tour of the area where the detention barracks stood by a young man, whose father was familiar with the location during the 40s and 50s. The mill buildings are no longer there and only a small amount of evidence to their past existence remain. The old parade ground where Billy worked up an appetite for the midday offering had been converted into a cricket field. Young people Billy talked to in pubs were unaware that the detention barracks ever existed, but one elderly gentleman who was also in the army during the late 40s, remembered it well and recalled the sergeant guards strutting around the town. He was also one of the spectators who observed the hunger march from the road on Sunday mornings.

This resident was aware that some of the guards became publicans, but didn’t know which pubs were involved and his final remark to Billy was,

"Did you know the guards used to shoot escaping prisoners?"

Billy was tempted to ask the helpful gentleman if he also knew that they transformed soldiers into ducks, but he didn’t feel like a lengthy explanation.

"O what a gift it would to gee us, to see ourselves as others see us" - Robert Burns.

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Catterick Camp

At last Billy got his foot on the military career ladder as the chauffeur to Three-Star General Carey, the most exalted man in the vast Catterick army garrison complex. Billy was so proud and couldn’t wait to tell his father, who drove Field Marshall Montgomery in Ireland, when Montgomery was only a captain. The chauffeur’s position warranted two stripes, a special tunic and a peaked cap, suitable for this important appointment. He was absolutely delighted driving the general’s limousine and seeing all the soldiers including officers’ solute the vehicle as he passed. It was particularly gratifying when the general wasn’t inside and he forgot to put the cover over the three red stars on the bumper.

The potential corporal’s duties involved transporting the general between his house and the General Headquarters with an occasional evening social event, but for the most part it was a daily milk run. Each morning the limousine would be positioned correctly outside the house, facing the direction it was going and stopping at a precise location outside the headquarters for the general to inspect the guard while they were presenting arms. In the afternoon the general would exit by the back door of the GHQ where the limousine would be waiting.

One Saturday morning Billy entered his vehicle and a mighty wind blew the driver’s door out of his hand, severing the check strap and breaking the handle on the rear door. Only 30 minutes remained before the general was due to go home, so he had to think fast. Returning to the workshop in that short amount of time for a replacement handle which they may not have, did not appear wise. Realizing that the general would not use that side of the vehicle the rest of the day unless there was an unexpected excursion, Billy decided that it wasn’t anything to be concerned about and the handle could be replaced over the weekend.

General CareyThe trip to the general’s house was uneventful and Billy returned to camp, intending to get the vehicle repaired. However it was a Saturday afternoon and the camp was completely deserted, with the exception of the guards at the gate. The workshop and the company office were both closed and there was no one in authority to talk to except the guard commander. Billy was already peeved, because the problem was encroaching on his weekend and he decided not to waste any more of his free time. Instead of attempting to find the guard commander, who in turn would have to find someone to open the workshop, he made a note on the back of the drivers worksheet and placed it in the company mail box according to army regulations.

Very few soldiers were aware of the small print on the back of the vehicle worksheet which relieved the driver from responsibility under such circumstances and the only reason Billy was aware of it was that his father, an ex-Regimental Sergeant Major passed a few words of wisdom on to him when he was called up.

Billy didn’t concern himself with the problem of the door handle over the weekend, because as far as he was concerned it was someone else’s obligation.

He also completely forgot about it on Monday morning when he positioned the limousine outside the general’s residence as usual. The general exited the house on time, prompting Billy to jump out of the vehicle to open the back door and salute. Without thinking Billy reached for the door handle, which of course wasn’t there. "How do you expect me to get in, through the window?" the general blasted and immediately walked around the other side of the vehicle and let himself in, leaving Billy standing there nonplussed.

The general also had to exit from the wrong side of the limousine at the headquarters, annoying him even further. Billy parked the vehicle and awaited the inevitable. Within minutes he received instructions to return to the camp, which he did as he rehearsed his response to the anticipated third degree. If they say this, I will say that and if they say that, I will say this etc. Obviously someone’s head had to roll to satisfy the general’s displeasure and Billy expected the lynch party on his return.

They did not disappoint him, because there was a frenzied group of 2 or 3 officers and numerous non-commissioned officers waiting to interrogate him as the limousine entered the camp. As soon as he stepped out of the car he was surrounded by the serious looking mob, which demanded to know the story of the infamous door handle. After explaining how the handle was broken on the Saturday, they wanted to know why it had not been fixed and he calmly conveyed his rehearsed explanation about workshop and the company office being closed with no one to report the incident to. He had his fingers crossed that they wouldn’t think about the guard commander! The lynch mob then broke up into small groups discussing Kings Rules and Regulations, presumably considering how many of them they could charge him with. Finally unable to contain himself any longer he blurted out the story of the worksheet to the dumfounded group, which immediately went into deep silence.

One of the officers asked a sergeant if the company mailbox had been checked over the weekend and the embarrassed looking sergeant immediately dispatched a corporal to investigate. Billy enjoyed observing the military hierarchy in action and wondered how many of them it would take to change a light bulb! The uncomfortable silence continued as Billy kept his fingers crossed in case the corporal decided to cover for his superiors by losing the worksheet. A horrible thought that only occurred to him at the last minute!

There was a sigh of relief however when the corporal came running back with the worksheet in his hand. Billy made them aware of the small print on the back and emphasized his appropriate notation, automatically relieving him of responsibility – Assuming everything was conducted according to Hoyle. Under the circumstances with so many people involved it would be unlikely if they didn’t play by the rules.

Knowing that the intended whipping boy was out of their grasp, the posture of the head-hunters noticeably changed from aggressive to passive as they adopted a restrained demeanour. Finally the frustrated authoritarian figures dismissed their prey and disbanded quietly mumbling to each other. Billy felt like Jack the giant killer!

Subsequently he was advised that his position as the general’s driver was terminated. Billy was tempted to inquire if that effected his potential promotion to corporal, but he didn’t think they would appreciate the humour. All was not lost however and when one door closes another one opens, as his old mum used to say. As a result of the worksheet fiasco, someone obviously assumed that Billy’s talents were more in keeping with documentation. And instead of a latrine assignment as expected the amazed soldier found himself in the pay office, filing papers, stuffing envelopes and writing down numbers. He was now a white-collar worker in a khaki shirt and dedicated to make it a success!!

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Pay Office Cartoon

After being fired from his prestigious position as the General’s chauffer, Billy was assigned to a desk job in the company pay office. He enjoyed handling money, filing papers and writing down numbers and the best part was that he was out of hearing range of Paddy, the crazy Irish Sergeant Major. It didn’t take Billy long to figure out that the lowest rank in the pay office was a full corporal, so he felt that he still had his foot on the military career ladder and would some day make his father proud of him. The dreamer still had visions of grandeur!

Billy assimilated well with the NCOs in the office and established a good report with the sergeant in charge, who had just reenlisted on account of not finding work as a civilian. Apparently Billy was doing quite well as a white-collar worker and after a while they sent him to the army pay office in Aldershot to attend a week’s training course.

He arrived in Aldershot feeling rather pleased with himself as a clerical worker and joined the other trainees from around the country. Most of them were non-commissioned officers and many of them were staff sergeants in the military police. These individuals were all large imposing men, some with necks and some without, but all with knuckles swinging close to the ground. Billy noticed that the staff sergeants in their free time were always in groups and seemed to drift from one place to another aimlessly, like kids hanging out in the street and never included others in their affairs. He was left to his own devices!

The first day’s training commenced with numerous discussions between the staff sergeants and the instructor with complete indifference to everyone else. By the time they were finished monopolizing the classroom, there was little time for anything else. At the end of the day, he realised that he not only didn’t learn anything, but he didn’t understand what the hell they were talking about. He was determined to do better the following day!

The second day continued as before, with Billy scratching his head in confusion. They were talking in a language he was not familiar with, because the terminology and abbreviations used in the pay world were foreign to him - Everything sounded like double Dutch and at the end of the day he pondered his situation and decided to confer with the instructor early the following morning, before the lectures started.

The next day the instructor arrived exactly on time and started before Billy had an opportunity to speak to him. It was now very apparent that he was attending an advanced pay course, which was so far over his head that he couldn’t follow a word of it. By the time the instructor stopped talking, Billy was concerned that he would be in trouble for not alerting someone sooner and considered the alternative, which was to goof off for the rest of the week and hope that they didn’t produce a test, in which case no one would be any the wiser.

After serious consideration he decided to take a chance and remain silent, which turned out to be the wrong decision, because there was a test at the end of the week and to his embarrassment he had no alternative but to submit a blank form with his name on it.

Within a short time of returning to Catterick camp, the disgraced soldier was posted to Egypt, which was probably the farthest distance away they could send him.

Returning in 1992 the Catterick garrison was still there, but in mothballs. Practically all the camps were closed including the GHQ, but one camp was observed with civilian police at the entrance gate. A number of new buildings had replaced older ones and the trucks in the vehicle parks were naturally of a more recent vintage. There were numerous small white vans and men in white overhauls in evidence around the garrison, indicating that the maintenance was in the hands of civilian contractors and less than a handful of soldiers in their new camouflage uniforms were seen. The large railway station at Richmond, which was erected to cater to the hordes of troops coming and going to Catterick, had been converted into a nursery.

Only a concrete slab remained from the RASC guardhouse opposite the GHQ, where Billy bided away his time scratching his initials and a calendar on the wall like the Prisoner of Zenda while waiting to be sent to the Sowerby Bridge detention barracks. To cheer things up at that time he made a promise to himself that he would return one day after making his fortune in the USA and park his large American automobile on the road outside the guardhouse and reflect on the past. Billy fulfilled that promise to all intents and purposes, with the exception that he never made his fortune and he pulled up in a small rented English Vauxhall car - Interesting how things work out sometimes!

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Billy the Barber

In 1948 Billy boarded an ocean liner called The Georgic, which was owned by The Ministry of Transport and managed by The Cunard White Star Line. This old liner had been converted into a troop ship and was bound for ancient Egypt, filled with young National Service soldiers. As the great ship sailed from Liverpool Billy's thoughts wandered to previous British troops in their red tunics and white helmets embarking to fight legendary wars, such as the Sudan, Lord Kitchiner, The Four Feathers and all that traditional stuff. As far as he was concerned he was playing soldiers and was completely unaware of the serious problems brewing at the time between Israel and the surrounding countries including Egypt.

Back to reality. The ship’s loud speaker, which reminded Billy of the offensive Irish Sergeant Major from Catterick Camp, announced that they were looking for a barber and interested parties with hair cutting experience should report to the manager of the hairdressing shop - the chance of making money was not lost on the young opportunist.

"How long have you been cutting hair?" the manager asked.

"About a year" Billy replied, and indeed he had experience with a pair of hand operated clippers, cleaning up the necks of a few soldiers who neglected to get a haircut prior to going on guard duty.

"The shop charges a shilling a haircut and you receive sixpence, payable at the end of the trip," the manager announced.

With business matters out of the way, the manager gave him a white coat and escorted to the other ranks shop, where he was introduced to the regular barber, who was an amiable young man employed by the shipping company.

The manager called one of the waiting customers to the spare barber chair, beckoning the novice to commence and stood back to observe. Nervously Billy looked down at the counter and spotted a familiar pair of hand-operated clippers, (Electric clippers had yet to be invented) He picked them up and proceeded to remove hair from the customer’s neck, with the clippings going all over the place. The manager immediately intervened, placing a sheet around the customer’s shoulders and stood back for the next show. The manager must have been satisfied, because within a few minutes he disappeared leaving the unsuspecting customers at the mercy of the self appointed barber. For the remainder of the day, Billy sheared the customers like sheep, with extra short back and sides for the NCOs. Billy's haircuts were so fast that his revenue exceeded those of the regular barber, which pleasing the manager and annoying his associate.

After work Billy pondered the situation and realised that if he didn’t slow down the relationship with his colleague would be uncomfortable and if he was to further his hairdressing career, certain improvements were necessary. The next day as he was shearing the flock, Billy was slyly observing the other barber and in particular how he used the scissors in combination with the comb. Before long Billy was confident enough to try it and of course made his share of errors. These unfortunate customers also received extra short haircuts, as a result of erasing the mistakes. Barbers have to start somewhere!

One amusing tale involved a corporal who was one of Billy's first customers and after a number of errors; the poor man was left with very little hair on his head. The corporal didn't complain at the time and included a tip with his payment. Later in the transit camp in Egypt, Billy was called upon to do guard duty and was disturbed when discovering the guard commander was none other than the practically bald corporal. That evening, with the ex-barber hiding in a corner of the tent with his collar turned up to avoid being identified, the corporal removed his hat and entered into a conversation with someone about being scalped by the ship’s barber. The other person sympathised and mentioned that he also received a horrible haircut on the ship. With visions of being lynched and hanging from a palm tree in the desert, the nervous one shrank considerable in size and prayed that he wouldn’t be recognised without the barbers white coat.

Another incident involved a young soldier from Billy's hometown of Luton, who was also a victim, but in a different respect. In Billy's infinite wisdom, this mans hair was ideal and he reasoned that anything he did as a novice would only detract from its perfection. His beautifully manicured hair was not too long and Billy didn’t understand why he came for a haircut. The man climbed into the chair and the sheet was wrapped around his shoulder in a professional manner.

"Just a trim," exclaimed the customer and the bewildered barber reached for the tools of his trade.

Making as much noise with the scissors as possible, Billy worked his way around the man’s head, lifting hair with the comb and snipping away without cutting anything. Billy even used the clippers to remove imaginary hair from his neck and just to be on the safe side he produced a mirror, showing the customer his handy work. The man appeared to be pleased and left a tip. Years later in their hometown the man was talking to Billy's sister and remarked that as a soldier on a troop ship years before, he was a customer of her brother who was a barber and swore that he gave him a haircut, without cutting any hair. Billy's sister thought the story was hilarious and laughed out loud, much to the man’s consternation.

At the end of the trip, the manager paid Billy eight pounds and together with tips equalled about seven weeks army pay. The manager was happy and suggested he look him up if he returned on the same ship. Billy arrived in Port Said a comparatively wealthy man.

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National Service Soldiers

Port Said, known as the 'Gateway to the East' was Billy’s first port of call in Egypt after being banished from the British Empire as a result of his misadventures during his army service in Yorkshire. You will sense the aroma of Port Said 3 miles out, he was advised, but the wind must have been blowing extra hard that day, because the sweet pungent objectionable air normally associated with garbage dumps filled the nostrils and heralded in another world 10 miles away.

The large transit camp in the desert, just outside of the town, conveyed a resemblance of the infamous POW camp in the American civil war called Andersonville. A sprawling lawless tent city with large menacing groups of soldiers wandering around aimlessly. Billy attempted one meal at the cookhouse and lined up holding a large compartmental aluminium tray - As he passed each item of food a server plunked a portion onto the tray with a ladle and when he got to the end of the line the tray was piled high with the days specials all mixed up together in a big heap. A queasy feeling in his stomach signalled all was not well, so he placed the tray down and bolted before there was an embarrassing accident. After that he lived on chocolate and Mars bars for a few days until he was posted.

Billy had hoped for a less regimented life the other side of the ocean and was disappointed to find that guard duty and marching about also existed in the desert.

One day a large contingent of unfortunate soldiers including Billy were marched up and down in rows of four for no apparent reason, unless the army felt that they would forget how to walk if they didn’t practice it enough.

After at least 20 minutes of this gruelling punishment, with rests in between to soak up the 100 degree sun, a quacking sound came from somewhere in the ranks as they were marching. The large 6 foot tall corporal brought the marchers to a halt and demanded to know who the comedian was and of course no one accepted responsibility. The marching continued and the quacking sound was heard again - Once more the corporal demanded to know who was making light of his drill. This routine continued until the corporal, who was also exposed to the sun, lost his cool, so to speak. He stood in front of the men and with obvious frustration announced that he would be willing to accompany the offending individual behind the latrine one on one and guarantee no charges would be brought. Billy wondered if the invitation was better than marching about in the sun, but the corporal was awfully big and looked very mean. His flat nose indicated that he had gone a few rounds and was not a stranger to the pugilistic world. Billy realised that he was no match for the corporal and would lose any advantage he might have with his footwork in the sand. Along with everyone else, he declined the generous offer to convene behind the latrine - Not that he had anything to do with the rude noises anyway! Could it be Donald?

Port Said has a large population primarily made up of shoeshine boys, watch vendors and naughty postcard sellers who were lacking in taste and propriety. The shoeshine boys did very well, because the streets were so dirty that you no sooner had a shine, when they require cleaning again - It was like a revolving door with brushes. Probably the most interesting of the bunch were the watch vendors; a jolly lot displaying great selections of timepieces all the way up their arms. The only guarantee they assured you is that you would never see them again, because they all look alike in their white night shirts.

The first time he purchased a watch; the negotiating lesson alone was worth more than the timepiece. The price started out at 50 quid, with Billy offering 50 cents and after much hard bargaining an exchange was made for an even quid. It was a really impressive looking wristwatch and Billy couldn’t wait to evaluate his bargain by counting the jewels inside. Opening the back he was transfixed in amazement, as the pieces of the movement jumped out like a Jack In The Box, suggesting he was a victim of unscrupulous merchandizing.

Unable to put the pieces of the movement back together with half of them missing anyway, he closed the back and considered his position. The next time he was in town and sitting at one of those open-air bars enjoying a little libation, he made sure the impressive looking watch on his wrist was on full display. As expected many vendors were eager to do business and offered to exchange one of their watches for his. However most of them became cautious when they noticed that the hands didn’t rotate and soon reneged on the deal - Cynical bunch! Finally a less suspicious gentleman of commerce offered an exchange for any of the watches on his left arm, which no doubt were of questionable valuable, if Billy included 20 quid.

After holding out for the appropriate period of time, the negotiation shifted to the watches on the right arm with an eventual even exchange, which didn’t include money. As soon as the vendor departed with what he thought was a valuable English watch in need of repair, Billy bolted. The watch he finished up with, which worked for a number of years, would be of considerable sentimental value had he retained it!

The atmosphere at Port Said was disturbing to some of the young soldiers, who were not comfortable being in a foreign country for the first time and dealing with hordes of vendors in night shirts. As darkness fell hundreds of young soldiers would congregate in one place waiting for the trucks to transport them back to camp. The vendors would circle the crowd like Indians around a wagon train and the soldiers would become very nervous. Some of the soldiers on the outside of the crowd would work their way to the centre, forcing new ones to the outside, who in turn did the same thing. It was like a penguin colony in the Antarctic, where they take it in turns on the outside of the group to keep those on the inside warm.

One night a group of young soldiers in their nervousness started to march around the streets while they waited for the transportation back to camp. The crowd was singing away to their hearts content, like whistling in the graveyard, so to speak! As they marched more soldiers joined in until there were at least 200 of them. They were having a great old time and the town folk must have wondered what a strange lot they were. Up and down the streets they marched getting more boisterous and noisy as they went and before you could say "boo", a strange looking Arab jumped out facing the front the marchers with his arms held high in a bear type pose and screaming in a loud voice. He nearly frightened the bejesus out of the nervous young soldiers who scattered in all directions and the parade was over.

The troop train transporting them from Port Said to Ismailia was definitely left over from Queen Victoria’s era, with large square openings where windows would normally be. Hard bench type seats and a round hole in the floor for you know what.

One could just imagine the soldiers of yesteryear in their red tunics and white pith helmets, firing away through the square openings at swarming fuzzy-wuzzies in the Sudan. However there was no conflict and commerce was the order of the day whenever the train stopped, which was frequently.

Large groups of venders, who appeared to be an extension of the Port Said syndicate would appear every time the train came to a halt and offer wonderful merchandise including watches, jewellery and of course the inevitable rude pictures. There were military police on the train with large dogs that were so effective with crowd control that whenever they appeared the men in nightshirts beat all records for the 100-yard dash. When they were not being chased away by the dogs, which they really didn’t appreciate, these gentlemen conducted business in the traditional barter fashion. It was really a risky business, because you never knew who would be in possession of what when the train started up and getting off to resolve the problem was not an option.

As the train passed hamlets of tin and cardboard huts grouped together in the desert by the railroad line it was obvious that many Egyptians were still living in the dark ages. Farmers could be seen in their traditional garments working the land with oxen by the side of the Sweet Water Canal, which they had been doing for generations. Females covered in black material from head to toe walked about carrying clay containers of water and other items on their heads. They were what is commonly known as beasts of burden.

Even in those days men had blue birds tattooed on their temples believing that it would help their eyesight. Their ignorance was a terrible shame, considering they were human beings like everyone else. It was like a scene out of a biblical tale, which hadn’t changed one iota over the years. Although it was not fully appreciated at the time, it was a fascinating experience and like going back in a time capsule to another era.

Billy can’t remember traveling from the railroad station at Ismailia to the garrison at Moascar, but it was only a few miles away and had to be by truck. Some details just refused to be recalled and hopefully they are all as inconsequential.

.


Billy in Moascar 1948

In the true tradition of his ancestors, Billy accepted his responsibility to uphold the glory of his British Empire on foreign soil - How does that sound?

Arriving in Egypt in 1948 he was posted to Moascar, which was a large garrison situated roughly in the centre of the Suez Canal, close to the town of Ismalia. Because of the trouble brewing between Israel and the surrounding countries, the Canal Zone, with Port Said at one end and Port Suez on the other would be his home for the next 12 months. Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria attacked Israel later that year.

In his reduced circumstances as a truck driver, he was attached to #139 Static Bakery, with duties involving the delivery of yeast to mobile bakeries situated in small desert camps within 60 miles of the garrison.

In the beginning it appeared that everyone in Egypt was called Ali, starting with the elderly man who cleaned the company office and ate so much garlic that he emptied rooms as he approached. There was also the Ali who supervised others at the bakery in Moascar and was responsible for loading yeast onto his truck. A third Ali supervised the removal of the yeast at Fayid, one of the destinations.

During the first week’s assignment, Ali at Fayid complained that some of the yeast was missing, which was initially attributed to sloppy work. When this continued the second week, Ali at Moascar suggested that the other Ali didn’t know how to count. Billy then reported this situation to the corporal at Fayid, who recommended closer supervision on the unloading and also suggested that ‘they’ were stealing it.

Not knowing the value of the yeast bricks, but beginning to understand the nature of the beast, Billy informed Ali at the loading dock in Moascar, who he trusted, that it was still going on and asked him to check the count carefully that day. Afterwards he observed the other Ali counting them off the other end and there was still a discrepancy.

The next day Billy made a point of personally counting the bricks before they were loaded and also when they were unloaded. To his amazement, there were still a couple of bricks missing. Although no one else appeared to be too concerned about the disappearing yeast, he realized that he was in the middle and if the situation escalated, he could be a prime suspect. The mystery had to be solved!

Analysing the situation, and with limited knowledge of the product, Billy reasoned that the yeast just couldn’t disappear into free air and if it did, the wrappers would remain as evidence. Obviously one of the counts was wrong and the answer was to find out which one. Could it be a case of the hand being quicker than the eye, smoke and mirrors, or just a misunderstanding? It was a case of Ali vs. Ali and may the best man win!

Starting from the beginning again the following morning, before Ali at Moascar made out the paperwork, he presented Billy with the boxes loaded with yeast for him to count. Instead of counting then in the boxes as he had previously, he emptied the boxes and repacked the bricks as he counted. He also didn’t let the boxes out of his sight until they were loaded on the truck. At the other end, he paid particular attention to the count as Ali unloaded them at Fayid and low and behold nothing was missing.

The conclusion was that Ali at the Moascar loading dock was the culprit and a slight of hand must have occurred either by the way the bricks were stacked in the boxes, appearing to be more than there were, or they were quickly removed from the boxes after the count. Miraculously from then on there were no more complaints of missing yeast and a dark cloud descended over Ali at the loading dock.

Some time afterwards Ali at Moascar informed Billy that he was going past his house on his next delivery and asked for a lift home. Ali wasn’t a bad guy as Ali’s go in Egypt, so he obliged by allowing him to sit in the passenger seat next to him. Ali was busy reading an Egyptian newspaper with another one on his lap as the truck exited the garrison, past the guards on the gate. Farther up the road with only sand and tin shacks in sight, Ali beckoned to stop and stepped down from the truck, revealing a large whole fish between the newspapers. Billy was annoyed that he was duped into smuggling the fish out of the garrison, but was grateful that Ali didn’t invite him home for dinner, with everyone sitting on the floor eating with their hands from a communal platter.

It’s a wonder that Billy didn’t smell the fish in the truck, which only confirms that the aromas came fast and furious out there at the time.

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Army Mechanic 1948

As a truck driver in the Canal Zone of Egypt in 1948, Billy’s duties involved delivering yeast to the small mobile bakeries in the desert from the garrison at Moascar, which was situated roughly in the middle of the Suez Canal.

That year Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria attacked Israel and some of the Egyptians became very hostile towards the British troops. Stories about vehicles leaving the garrison and not returning started to circulate, and some of the civilian workers refused to leave the garrison with their horses and wagons, because the Egyptian military were supposedly confiscating all transportation and placing it on trains going to the front. Turmoil was the order of the day.

As hostilities increased, word came down for Billy to select a weapon suitable for his duties and he was surprised by the informality of the procedure. He was handed a key and given directions to a small hut not much larger than an outhouse, which they called the company armoury. It was filled with all kinds of guns and ammunition, including rifles, automatic Bren guns, Sten guns and Thompson Sub- machine guns also revolvers in all shapes and sizes. At first glance he favoured the Thompson, but thought he would look rather silly walking around like Al Capone or J. Edgar in the desert. He then drifted towards the Luger revolver, which was a nice looking side arm, but was finally attracted to the Colt 35 and 48, because they came with cowboy holsters and Mexican type bandoliers, which he always wanted, but never received as a kid. He finally selected the colt 35, because it was smaller and lighter than the 45, however it probably didn’t make much difference, because he was never trained in the use of revolvers anyway.

For a period of time his deliveries in the desert went without incident and Billy returned to the garrison as many times as he left. There were a few occasions when small boys contrived to stop his vehicle, but they didn’t succeed, because by that time he was aware of their tricks. For the most part they just wanted to stop vehicles and steal the contents, because anything and everything in Egypt was saleable at the time.

With the impressive looking Colt in its holster hanging at the hip and the bandolier full of bullets over his chest, Billy was a sight to behold. A soldier to be reckoned with who felt that his appearance alone would probably frighten away the average adversary. The day he was secretly dreading finally arrived and just as he was driving through a small mud village on his way back to the garrison, the engine failed and the truck came to an abrupt halt. Within seconds as he attempted to restart the engine, the truck was surrounded by a large group of local Arabs in their traditional long white night shirts and little round hats. Aware that the crowd was mainly on one side of the truck, Billy ejected himself through the door on the other side and realized why the crowd wasn’t there, as he landed at the bottom of a large size hole in the sand. Looking up from his disadvantaged position in an embarrassing predicament, he observed the mob scurrying all over the truck, like they had discovered a new toy. The frightened soldier scrambled out of the hole on his hands and knees expecting to do battle, with absolutely no idea how to handle the situation.

On ground level Billy looked up and down the road for other military vehicles expecting the cavalry to arrive, which was his only reference to the situation. That’s the way it was in the movies, which was his only experience of such things. He smelled the bitter sweat of fear as he considered drawing his shiny revolver, but could not come to terms with the image of standing in front of the large mob and threatening them with a gun, particularly one he was unfamiliar with. The throng was also growing in size, making it difficult to be on the outside of them. Everything happened so quickly, or so it appeared and he noticed that the bonnet on the truck was up and a man with overalls was doing something with the engine.

In their frenzied attempt to investigate the vehicle, no one was paying any attention to Billy, which was a strange feeling as if he was invisible, or perhaps ‘he was already dead and didn’t know it,’ he thought. Or maybe it was one of those realistic dreams, but no such luck this time. Under the circumstances he did not wish to bring attention to himself and kept the holster flap buttoned over the gun, but his hand never far away in case someone attempted to grab it. At that point he gave serious consideration to whether the gun was an asset or a liability, but before panic set in, the mechanic who was working on the engine started it up and beckoned him to return to the truck. Billy leapt into the drivers seat without missing a beat and thanked the mechanic profusely as he drove away in haste, with little Arab urchins jumping off the vehicle as it increased speed.

Down the road Billy breathed a sigh of relief and decided that he must stop at the village the next day to take a little something for the mechanic to show his appreciation, but how would he find him amongst all those white night shirts and did he really want to tempt fate a second time. The answer was a resounding no!

.


The ATS Girls

In 1948 there was a shortage of troop ships and the soldiers in Egypt became aware that their National Service would be extended for a period of time. As a result Billy endured an additional 6 months in the desert counting the days until he was in civvy street and no longer playing silly buggers in the army.

Everyone was assigned demobilisation numbers, which were announced periodically and there was always a party in the bar tent to wish the lucky individuals bon voyage. These parties rarely finished until everyone was paralytic from Stella, an Egyptian chemical beer, not a female. There was also a party most Saturday nights at the bar tent with all the camp characters in attendance. The notable ones included 'Maggot', an old regular soldier who was not deranged, but although the light was on, no one was home. He was not exactly the life of the party and would invariably pass out, sleep in his clothes, and resemble his namesake the following morning. Corporal Magio who ran the local post office and his assistant Pat Hughes, who was Billy’s close friend. There was also Scouse McCabe, a charming colourful lad from Liverpool who was the most popular of this motley group and would sometimes arrive on a donkey, which he borrowed from an Arab down the street when he wasn’t looking. Scouse was an entertainer and looked great on his ass in his civilian suit playing his guitar and singing. Although the thought of going home were always uppermost at the parties, many a good time was had in that bar tent at Moasca.

In the spring young men’s fancy turn to other things and in Egypt other things were thin on the ground for private soldiers, requiring exceptional ingenuity to participate.

Although there were many ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) girls in the garrison, meeting them was an accomplishment, They were rarely seen at the garrison dance, which was a beautiful open-air arraignment with colourful sunshade covered tables and chairs surrounding the dance floor. Strings of lights illumined the area and a soft drink bar displayed delicious pastries to die for. This function was for other ranks and the majority of the girls were foreigners, related to civilians working in the garrison and some of them were very attractive. One such girl who caught Billy’s eye was a pretty young thing of Middle Eastern decent and after dancing together a couple of times, he attempted to corral her with a lemonade and pastry seduction. Few could resist those tiny delectable icing covered Egyptian cakes, which teased the palate and enticed you back for more. The girl agreed without hesitation - However she explained that it’s traditional to buy for the whole family who were her chaperones, pointing to a group of about 13 people, mostly elderly ladies covered from head to toe in black veils, seated together one side of the dance floor. Regrettably Billy was obliged to reveal his inadequate financial condition, ending the romance before it began. It wasn’t easy being a British soldier!

Apparently the reason the ATS girls didn’t attend the garrison dances, was that they received numerous sergeant mess invitations which were higher on their priority list, no doubt having something to do with the fact that these functions were completely free and provided real drinks with food, plus transportation to and from.

Billy had a friend who was promoted from a corporal to a sergeant and arranged for him to act as a waiter at one of the sergeant mess functions. The benefit of this duty in addition to good tucker and drink was the close proximity to the elusive females.

The function started formally with the ATS girls arriving in their motorized chariot and the sergeants, resplendent in their best bib and tucker graciously welcomed them at the door. Billy, acting out his best interpretation of a waiter, with a white towel over one arm, served drinks and removed glasses while checking out the qualifications of the guests. The sergeants were no different from the other ranks on such occasions and as the darkness fell and the drinking increased a number of them including his friend were passing out. Billy poured his friend into bed and returned to the dance to find one of the more attractive girls unattended. Ignoring the triple stripers who were either horizontal or being propped up, Billy tripped the light fantastic for the rest of the evening with a prize normally reserved for the upper echelon. At the appointed hour a truck arrived, the girls were scooped up and Billy did his disappearing act to avoid the work detail.

During the next party in the bar tent, Billy related the events of the sergeants mess function and Scouse announced to their surprise that he had a sister in the garrison’s ATS. After a lot of cajoling, Scouse agreed to try and arrange a get together for a number of the in-crowd. The meeting took place in the sumptuous bar at the Garrison Club in Moascar, which was a prestigious facility exceeding their expectations. The four soldiers were the first to arrive and seated themselves in soft comfortable armchairs, ordering Stella beer and anxiously awaited their female escorts for the evening.

Then before you could say ‘my girl will be prettier than yours,’ a singularly unattractive rotund female of generous proportions approached, followed by five hounds of the Baskervilles in various shapes and sizes. The soldiers were transfixed in disbelief like deer caught in the headlights as they realized that they were stuck for the evening, not having an exit strategy. All eyes then focused on the only female who didn’t belong in a kennel, and sensing their attention, she let it be known that she was engaged to a soldier in the garrison and wasn’t available. ‘What have you got yourself into this time Ollie,’ Billy thought, – settling in for an interesting evening. Whatever natural attributes the ATS contingent lacked, which was considerable, they attempted to compensate with their talent and ability as magicians to make large quantities of Stella beer disappear en mass. At 10 Stellas a round and 10 ackers a bottle, the piggy on the bank was looking a little anemic, regardless of the fact that they had sold a blanket to subsidize the evening’s entertainment. Coincidentally the drinking party came to an abrupt end exactly the same time the funds were depleted and everyone made their way to their respective quarters.

It’s amazing how the affluence of inkerhol and the loneliness of the desert affect ones’ memory and prospective, because the devils for punishment came back for more later on. In case these stories are misleading and readers feel that the ATS girls are being maligned, let it be said in their defence that they had many redeeming qualities and in particular, they were available and of the female gender. Man does not live on bread alone, as they say!

After selling another blanket to fortify the exchequer, another party was arraigned with the condition that the ATS girls not outnumber the soldiers. One of the original four soldiers who was determined to retain his sanity dropped out and was replaced by Maggot, who you may recall was a sandwich short of a picnic and was considered be a suitable companion for the cub leader, with a little poetic justice thrown in.

The four hopefuls and four of the original Baskervillians met at the NAAFI club in Ismailia, the closest town to the garrison. Events paralleled the previous get together with the ‘ladies’ who had a great affection for alcoholic beverages, and Billy's trophy with an additional addiction to groceries, absorbing more liquid than was humanly possible. Proverbial hollow leg imbibers were amateurs in comparison! This time the funds held out all evening until they were ushered out the door and the merry group staggered through the town on their way back to the garrison. Then before you could say ‘You couldn’t possibly drink any more,’ the hounds piled into a local Arab bar and ordered Stella. For whatever reason at that time, the soldiers were embarrassed to admit that their finances were depleted and because the drinks arrived so quickly, everyone sat down to enjoy the beer they knew they couldn’t pay for. Immediately our hero pondered how countries like Egypt dealt with wayward foreigners and vivid images of steel bars, separated hands and chain gangs in the 100-degree desert appeared. Billy’s answer to the problem was to nip the situation in the bud before it got out of control and landed them all in the cooler. Excusing himself from the group he approached the manager of the establishment and explained the true story of their plight.

Fortunately the manager spoke English and Billy in civilian clothes explained that he was a British officer and was willing to leave his pay book as collateral for the money, which he would have his batman deliver the following day. The manager, who must have been knowledgeable in the ways of two fisted lady drinkers, and the word ‘lady’ is used advisedly, was empathetic, very polite, wished them well and declined the offer of the pay book. The sale of one more blanket provided the necessary money to do the honourable thing the following day.

"Captain Brown wishes me to convey his best wishes, a sincere apology and reimbursement, e’ also wants me to giv’ you 10 bob, which is 80 ackers for the booze an’ sum’fing for yourself."

So how could they sell all these blankets and still keep warm in the winter under canvas, you may be prompted to enquire? And the answer is that the soldiers being demobbed left their blankets on their beds where periodically someone would collect them. It was a simple matter of getting to the blankets before the collector. Blankets were as good as currency with the Arabs and had a standard value, which didn’t vary. The trick was getting them out of the garrison, which was not difficult in vehicles. Blankets were in great demand by the Arabs and could be sold to almost anyone. In addition to their intended use they were also used as floor covers and made into garments such as overcoats. One time the soldier had occasion to visit an army blanket storage facility out in the desert. What he witnessed was an unbelievable sight of used blankets piled 10 feet high, forming roads up and down the compound miles long and all uncovered. There were literally millions of them and probably more rotting away by the time the British troops finally left Egypt.

Leaving all these blankets in Egypt in 1951, which were the same as currency must have had a seriously affect on the Egyptian economy, although not indefinitely, because bank notes would probably be preferable for carrying around in wallets. On second thoughts perhaps blankets, as currency could stimulate the Egyptian economy – starting with the building industry erecting larger banks to house the blankets and bigger houses for the same purpose, in addition to bigger and better safes. Special transportation services such as blanket taxies would be required to carry the blankets and new equipment necessary to authenticate them would be developed. Simple household items like tables would have to be redesigned to accommodate the blankets when playing cards and expressions like I’ll raise you a blanket, blanket coverage, another day another blanket, do you think blankets grow on trees and blankets are the route of all evil, could generate an industry in explanatory books. To avoid trips to the store with 200 blankets or more for things like refrigerators, the blankets could be stamped indicating different denominations, requiring special stamping equipment. No one would be left out in the ‘cold’ in this ‘blanket’ society! That’s it - Billy declines to elaborate any more on the advantages of this new economy, in case he finds himself back in Egypt as an official blanket advisor to the government and with his luck the Baskervillians would still be there squeezing the Stella bottles.

Who was it that said, "If you can keep your head when everyone around you is losing theirs, you obviously don’t understand the situation?" – Help!

.


British Soldiers in Egypt 1940s

An idle mind is the devil’s workshop and the consequence of placing intelligent people in repetitive jobs and boring environments, challenges their ingenuity to find ways of making it interesting, or …. it up, and sometimes both!

For example when young Billy left school he worked in a bakery for a few hours and in keeping with tradition as the low man on the totem pole, he was given the choice assignments. One of these tasks was to carry bread loaves fresh out of the oven from the bakery cellar to the retail shop. The stairs were exceptionally steep and the burning hot loaves rolled off the tray on to his body. To compensate for this discomfort, he included a selection of the best cakes on each trip, which he hid in the toilet for later.

After squeezing cream onto cakes for a considerable period of time he was assigned to the pork pie production, which involved cutting the pie shapes out of the dough, forming them and inserting the meat. By the time all of the pastry parts were ready and lined up on the long table, he was so bored with the monotony that he welcomed the devil who advised him on the appropriate amount of meat to place in each pie. Instead of filling them with an equal amount, he varied the quantity and before long the task became less arduous and more like fun. Some of the pies received meat the size of a marble and the others with varied amounts including the lucky ones with meat stuffed to the brim. Before anyone could see his handiwork he slapped the tops on the pies, decided his career needed a change and with the pastries retrieved from the toilet, made a hasty retreat.

He considered returning to ask for his pay the following day, but decided that they may question his unconventional pie making techniques. His only regret was that he couldn’t see the expressions of the unsuspecting people biting into the pies.

So what has all this to do with the SIB, which is the Special Investigation Branch of the army? – well in Egypt in 1948 before PCs, TVs and VCRs, the ex-pie maker and his fellow conscripts were exceptionally bored with the monotony of army life in the desert and although their hobby chasing ATS girls and romancing the Stella brought some relief, the humdrum existence was extracting its toll.

One evening when Billy and three of his associates in civilian cloths exited the NAAFI in Ismailia, military police were all over the place in small groups stopping soldiers for questioning. One of the lads said, "Act suspiciously" and instead of walking towards the MPs, which was the direction back to the garrison, they swiftly crossed the road and entered an Arab bar. Periodically they would peek through the curtains and ascertain that their behaviour was achieving the desired effect, as more MPs gathered outside and the sergeant in charge with a pained expression on his face leaned around the corner straining to see into the bar.

To add to the suspense the jovial soldiers who were feeling no pain took an exorbitant amount of time drinking their beer and planning their next manoeuvre, while the MPs impatiently shifted their weight from one foot to the other outside.

When the irresponsible ones couldn’t nurse their beer any longer, two of them left by the back door and walked in different directions as the other two exited from the front. None of them got very far before the agitated MPs pounced and demanded their pay books. No words were exchanged as their identity was recorded and they were allowed to proceed.

The following day they were all summoned to the SIB office in Moascar and interviewed individually by sergeants who never mentioned the reason for the invitation and the pranksters didn’t ask, which added to the intrigue. The posture of the bemused investigators indicated serious intent as they rotated between the suspects asking questions that they couldn’t relate to. Everything was very entertaining; watching these professional individuals attempting to uncover whatever it was they thought their quarry was guilty of. However the joke had turned serious, placing them in an awkward position, unable to explain their behaviour and allow their captors to save face. The jokers had no alternative but to play out the game, because the distinguished investigators would not be amused to discover the truth. After futile questioning for a number of hours the SIB were still mystified and would probably never realize that a bunch of idle squaddies were just playing silly buggers and yanking their chain.

The words ‘suspicious behaviour’ were never mentioned and the investigators continued their search not knowing what it was they were looking for, but convinced that someone was guilty of something. They kept changing their tactics and in time their frustration became obvious and the more they laboured the funnier it became.

It was now extremely difficult for the jokers to contain their amusement, observing first hand how the 3 B’s were so effective. – (Very few soldiers are not aware of the meaning of the 3 B’s and it’s relationship with confused intelligentsia) After exhausting their repertoire of questions and acting out all the old tricks like good cop, bad cop and all the other cops, the bewildered SIB gentlemen reluctantly dismissed their prey.

However that wasn’t the end of the joviality, because the next day when everyone returned to camp for siesta the whole area was surrounded by MPs, who proceeded to search every tent thoroughly. The MP sergeant searching Billy’s tent examined the civilian shoes in his locker box and informed him that his shoe prints were found in the sand at the back of the bar tent leading to the fence. When asked if he cared to put that interesting information into prospective, the sergeant responded that the officers’ mess on the other side of the fence had been broken into. This unlikely happenstance was too coincidental to be taken seriously and Billy considered it to be retribution in response to the suspicious behaviour incident. There was no question that the pranksters were now under the magnifying glass and at the mercy of the military police. If nothing else was accomplished by the MPs, they made the point that they could also play silly buggers, which had a rather sobering effect.

Although Billy wasn’t concerned about the inference or accusation, he patiently explained the unlikelihood of his shoes being involved, considering they had never been worn and were always kept in the padlocked box. He also suggested the probability of other individuals in the garrison owning similar mass-produced shoes. While talking, he realized that there was a hollow sound to his explanation, which sometimes happens when one feels that dialogue is superfluous and the other person, really isn’t listening.

Apparently the drama was all over, because the bemused MPs and the SIB were never heard from again, leaving the idle ones to ponder the wisdom of their actions and the effects of the Stella. Although things got further out of hand than originally intended and a little serious at times, it was fun while it lasted and provided welcome comic relief.

Billy wishes to take personal exception to whoever said that you are only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely!

.


Mess Hall

The soldiers in Egypt were at the mercy of the British government to provide the necessary ships to return them to their homeland where they belonged. In the meantime they made the best of a bad situation and cheered up their lives as best they could.

One weekend the four friends decided to go into town, but realised that they didn’t have enough money, however they had plenty of blankets, but no transportation to smuggle them out of the garrison. One ingenious individual who shall remain nameless, suggested wrapping a blanket around Scouse’s body, which would be covered by his loose drape suite, which was fashionable at the time. Scouse stripped to his skivvies and the blanket was wrapped around him as tightly as possible, followed by his shirt, pants and jacket. The result was that he looked like a man with a blanket under his suite! Everyone then agreed that the guards paid little attention to British pedestrians going through the gate, so Scouse walked with one soldier either side of him and one closely in front and successfully passed through the gate undetected. The trick now was to undress Scouse in the town and transact business! Imagination has no bounds in the world of blankets and they negotiated with a street vendor who sold suitcases and could recognize the merchandise under the suit. One of the soldiers remained as collateral and the others carried a suitcase to a deserted street where Scouse disrobed and placed the blanket into the case. Returning, they collected their money and headed for Stella. - Beer that is!

This is all very nice, but what has it do with Germans, you might ask? No, it’s not misleading advertising. Believe it or not there were many Germans still in Egypt when Billy landed in 1948 and he was very surprised to see these fine specimens of Arian decent strutting about the highways and byways of the sandy terrain.

Fortunately they were no longer combative and instead were gainfully employed making and selling beautiful cigarette lighters and cases, which they produced from aluminium mess tins. These men were either captured during the war in North Africa or interned at the end of the war and were considered ex-prisoners awaiting transportation home since 1945. Ships were in short supply, but they were all gone by the end of 1948.

On one occasion some of the squaddies were invited to a German camp, which no longer exhibited objectionable security like barbed wire, for a drinking sing along, which the Germans really love. It was held under a large tent with maybe 25 non-English speaking Germans and an equal amount of non-German speaking squaddies. The proceedings started out in the usual formal way and finished a differently note.

The relationship was odd to say the least, but efforts were made on both sides to overcome the language barrier with hand signs and body language, which produced both laughter and consternation. Signs like thumbs up and thumbs down are universal and require no explanation and of course as the beer flowed, there was a total disregarded for decorum and the vertical finger and other offensive gestures became prevalent.

The hosts particularly liked Wehrmacht marching music and the guests preferred old English WW11 songs, so the two sides took it in turn with the Germans singing songs like Horst Wessel Lied and the squaddies singing classics like My old Man’s a Sergeant and the army version of Colonel Bogey. The evening entertainment reached a crescendo with both sides singing their own songs at the same time as loud as they could, trying to drown out the other side. Memorable – yes. Enjoyable - ???

Arriving at one of the mobile bakeries in the desert, Billy was alerted to the fact that the Germans had just vacated a camp next door. A corporal at the bakery asked him if he wanted any tools from a large workshop filled with equipment, which didn’t belong to anyone. "Nothing is on the official inventory list," the corporal advised as the two men drove over to the workshop, examined the booty and found almost everything necessary for repairing vehicles in addition to other equipment. "Can you make use of any of it?" the corporal inquired. "I’d like to SELL it," Billy enthused, rubbing his hands in anticipation. ‘This was it’ he thought, ‘most people dream about an opportunity like this and here it was sitting in his lap.’ The two men went into a huddle and Billy explained to the corporal that his expertise was actually in blankets, but no doubt tools could also be merchandised, so what he suggested was basically a test marketing campaign with a couple of pieces and if successful, clean out the whole workshop.

Billy went on to explain that the centres of commerce in the desert are the railroad intersections where vehicles are obliged to slow down. At these convenient locations middlemen congregate and wave currency at passing drivers as an indication of their desire to conduct business. He mentioned that he would be passing railroad crossings on his way back to the garrison and the corporal agreed to enter into an informal partnership with him as a distributor. They placed the carefully selected test samples, in the form of a petrol generator and two new carburettors on the truck and departed.

Arriving at the first RR crossing one of Bill’s regular customers jumped on the running board of the truck expecting to transact business in blankets. After allowing the middleman to view the merchandise, Billy was directed to drive off the road into the desert and after a couple of miles was beckoned to stop. He was curious to know why they were stopping where they were, because there was nothing there - no buildings, no vegetation - only sand. In the rearview mirror he noticed three Arabs approaching from behind, so he got out of the vehicle to great them. The first one was a tall imposing man in long splendid colourful flowing garments and the other two were obviously assistants wearing the traditional long white night shirts and little round hats.

These gentlemen had their own way of conducting business, which was a little different from the West and somewhat unique. At the same time as Billy was shaking hands with the imposing one, the other two removed the generator from the vehicle without saying a word. The imposing one reached into his immaculate garments and produced the largest wallet Billy had ever seen, which was at the end of a long chain. A carefully selected five-pound note was handed it him, jolting his memory of the carburettors in the toolbox, which he then produced. Again the large wallet surfaced and two pounds were dispensed - without verbiage.

Eager to arrange the disposal of the remaining contents of the workshop, but hampered by the customer’s lack of communication, Billy talked to the imposing one in a loud deliberate voice in the way some people talk to the elderly, irrespective of a hearing problem. " Bring - a - hundred - pounds - tomorrow - and - I - will - have - the - truck - loaded - with - tools," he enunciated. The imposing one nodded agreement and they departed. The whole thing was over in less than 5 minutes and anyone saying that New York is the fastest place to test market products has obviously never been to Egypt!

If you have been paying attention, you should now be asking where the three Arabs came from in the desert, considering that there were no buildings to house them, no bushes for them to hide behind, no trees for them to climb and no vehicles. They had to arrive either from the sky or from underground. It’s not difficult to imagine the imposing one on a magic carpet flying around the desert, but no floor coverings were observed. No aircraft landed and the dust from a helicopter would have sent the imposing one scurrying to the dry cleaners. They must have immerged from unimaginable underground quarters, considering their immaculate appearance. Either that or the Baskervillians without a benefactor were practicing new magic tricks in the desert.

On returning to the garrison after being humbled by the grandeur of the imposing one, Bill decided that he needed more suitable attire in keeping with his elevated position in commerce and ordered a new pair of tailor-made pants and a pair of shoes.

The guard duty that night involved sleeping in the OC’s office to protect the company safe and yes, it sounds like the fox guarding the hen house, but it’s all the truth your honor.

During the evening Billy received a phone call from the corporal in the desert informing him that one of the civilian workers reported seeing them take stuff from the workshop. The two partners planned their alibi and returned to what ever they were doing.

Early the following morning Billy’s truck was searched and he was ordered to report to the OC’s tent. Major Smith who was known affectionately as the Old Man, was a true gentleman of the old school, complete with a white mustacho and white hair and lived in a tent next to the company office surrounded by small palm trees and fruit bushes. It was exceptionally rare in those days to talk to an officer unofficially and Billy was surprised to be conversing with the Old Man in his tent. Although he had never spoken to the gentleman previously, Billy knew that he was aware of his existence, because the Old Man was an avid cricket enthusiast and Billy was on the team. "Someone reported seeing you taking stuff from a workshop in Te El Kabir," the old man stated, "what do you have to say about it?" Billy recited his prepared speech, explaining that he went over to the workshop with the corporal to find a tire pressure gauge, because he had a flat tire. They moved stuff around until they found a gauge and departed.

"Did you remove anything," asked the old man.

"Yes, I removed the gauge" Billy replied, realising that they wouldn’t hang him for stealing a gauge and hoping that the admission added credibility to his story.

"Why would you think the witness reported seeing you lift something onto the truck," asked the OC?

"I can only assume that he saw us moving things around, climbing in and out of the vehicle and misunderstood the situation. Perhaps he put two and two together and made five," Billy concluded in his best innocent manner. After leaving the tent Billy felt he had the Old Man snowed and although he wasn’t happy about misleading the amiable gentleman, self-preservation prevailed and he was in a state of sin.

Two hours later the corporal and the civilian witness arrived from the desert and the formal proceedings began. CSM Akins, who was a fine upstanding young man, marched Billy in first followed by the civilian witness who was a Cypriot and was accompanied by an interpreter, because he couldn’t speak English. The interpreter relayed the accusation and the Old Man questioned the accuser with vigour. The two Cypriots were no match for the Old Man’s cross-examination and their nervousness detracted from their credibility. The corporal’s contrived testimony was naturally supportive and the case was dismissed. The Old man’s carefully selected words to Billy before he was marched out of the office, conveyed with clarity that he was not totally convinced either way and kindly bestowed the benefit of the doubt - A true officer and a gentleman!

The fact that the equipment at the workshop wasn’t on the official inventory was never mentioned and Billy could only dream about that large wallet surfacing from the multicoloured garments with the hundred quid.

By this time in Billy’s career he had metaphorically shot himself in the foot so many times, that it’s a wonder he wasn’t permanently incapacitated.

.


Billy and CMS Akins

George Bernard Shaw wrote, "There is no sincerer love than the love of food," so chances are that he had never served in the British army.

The soldier in this story can honestly say that he only enjoyed two meals during the 2½ years of his military service and they were both on Christmas day. The celebration at Moascar Egypt was the most memorable, because of the relaxed atmosphere and warm weather. If everyday in the army was like Christmas in Egypt, there would be long lines of men attempting to enlist and they wouldn’t have to bother non-believers like our hero. In 1948 the men of the 139 Static Bakery unit assembled in the cookhouse where they anxiously awaited a meal delivered to them by officers, which was the tradition in the British army for generations. Prior to the meal officers placed Stella beer bottles on the tables in front of every soldier and when no one was looking four of them transferred the bottles onto the floor beneath the table. Within seconds the efficient officers replaced them and as soon as they turned their backs, the second four went underneath also. This could have probably continued all afternoon, except that there was no more room for bottles under the table and they had to be satisfied with 28 plus the 4 on the table. The meal consisting of turkey with the trimmings was absolutely delicious and fit for a king. Being waited on by officers in addition to the generous amount of Stella completed the perfect day.

After dinner they carried the bottles to the tent in relays and on the last lap they noticed the Old Man and CSM Akins chewing the fat outside the cookhouse, where they had been slaving away. The men completed the transfer of bottles and decided to go back and chat with the Old Man who they greatly admired. Normally it would be considered a no-no for a private to talk to an officer before being spoken to, but they felt differently about the Old Man and were comfortable approaching him on Christmas day. Their feelings were not misplaced; the Old Man and the CSM greeted them cordially and to put things into prospective, it appeared that their superiors had been dipping into the Stella while conducting their duty as waiters and not wishing to hold these transgressions against them, the soldiers invited them to their tent for more drink. Somebody swung the lamp and everyone sat around for about 20 minutes on the beds with a bottle in their hands shooting the bull. Finally the Old Man announced that it was time for him to have his own dinner and the two gentlemen shook hands with everyone and departed.

Fifty-six years later, Billy tried to express his feelings about that afternoon in the tent on Christmas day 1948 and every time he thought of things to say, tears came to his eyes and he had to move on. However he was then compelled to go back and ponder the reason for his emotions about a meeting, which normally he would have avoided like the plague. Could it have anything to do with the fact that although the Old Man never actually let his hair down, so to speak, he also never exhibited the swaggering arrogance, affectation, pomposity and self-importance prevalent with younger officers at the time. Or could it have been something to do with the aura of serenity and humility about the Old Man, which was unusual in the army and particularly in a person of authority. The Old Man also reminded the soldier of his father, who was an RSM during the war and had a similar disposition. Another comparison was the Commanding Officer who read Rudyard Kipling’s poem in the movie Gunga Din.

So I’ll meet 'im later on In the place where ‘e is gone---- Where it’s always double drill and no canteen E’ll be squattin’ on the coals, Givin’ drink to pore damned souls, An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din. Din! Din! Din! You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din! Tho’ I’ve belted you an’ flayed you, By the livin’ gaud that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

Rudyard Kipling.

Terrible things happened on the New Years Eve when Billy and his friend Pat Hughes went for a drink at an establishment in the garrison. They entered a large barroom where soldiers were making merry and passing out all over the place. To avoid stepping over drunken bodies lying in the beer suds covering the floor, the two men went into a smaller sergeants bar in the belief that they wouldn’t be questioned in civilian clothes on New Years Eve. They drank with an amiable sergeant whose company provided a certain amount of credibility that they belonged there and the bartender was too busy to pay any attention. For reasons Billy will never know he decided to drink Martell's Three Star Brandy and before he knew what hit him, he was as drunk as a skunk. Apparently the sergeant suggested taking him to his tent, which was nearby and they half carried and half dragged him over the sand. Arriving at the tent the sergeant gave Pat some money to return to the bar and buy a bottle of whiskey.

The next thing Billy remembered was the sergeant taking out a pair of ladies panties from a cupboard drawer and insisted that he put them on. The seducer was so aggressive that the drunken soldier miraculously sprang back to life, knocking the amorous one out of the tent and proceeded to strangle him on the ground outside. While the sweet sergeant was screaming for his life as loud as he could with the limited amount of available air, Pat returned and attempted to pull his friend off the sergeant. Within minutes the military police arrived, arrested Pat who they thought was also attacking the sergeant and began to beat Billy on the head with a large torch. Apparently there was an immediate concern for the sergeant’s safety, whose demeanour suggested an aversion to the activity. In short, the bugger was having the life throttled out of him! Fortunately or unfortunately the sergeant survived and the two soldiers were literally and unceremoniously thrown in the local guardhouse.

Within a half hour of being in the cell a CSM entered, ordered Billy to stand up and proceeded to beat the living daylights out of him. Fortunately he passed out and didn’t feel most of the punishment.

The following morning he could hardly see out of both eyes because of the swelling on his face and running his fingers over the lumpy pulp, he realised that he could easily be mistaken for Freddy Mills the boxer after one of his losses. A prisoner in another cell informed him that he saw the brutal one beat him up the night before and gave him the attackers name. He also agreed to be a witness if Billy decided to bring charges against the unpleasant CSM. Later the sergeant in charge of the guardhouse, but absent the night before, indicated his strong disapproval of the beating, which didn’t help, but was a little comforting under the circumstances.

By mid morning the two soldiers were marched in front of a Major, the camp’s OC who informed them that the offending sergeant’s peccadilloes were known to them and in the OC’s exact words, "We have been keeping an eye on him for a while." The Major then went on to say that the sergeant would be shipped back to England and they were free to go.

Our hero wanted a redress in the worst way and although he felt he had enough evidence to prove an unprovoked attack by the CSM, he was concerned that if he brought charges he would also face similar ones involving the sergeant, because the two cases were entwined. He also realised that the only thing to be gained was satisfaction and it wasn’t worth the risk, considering he was so close to being de-mobbed. Also the surprise and pleasure of being able to walk away from this latest misadventure overshadowed everything else and it was time to close the book. What he was tempted to tell the Major and really wanted, was another round in the cell with the bully after he had rested, but he knew it would never happen, so he bit his tongue adding to his discomfort!

In April of 1949 Billy departed Egypt with a kitbag full of cigarettes in cans, which was given to him by a corporal who dispensed cigarettes from the Nuffield fund, which was established for troops serving overseas. During and after the war troops received 50 free cigarettes and were offered an additional 50 at half price every week. At the exact time Billy was going home the Nuffield fund in Egypt closed down and he was fortunate to enjoy a share of the remaining inventory in storage.

Before leaving for Blighty the Old Man invited Billy into his office to discuss his aspirations for Civvy Street. The Major then wrote a glowing reference, which the soldier will always cherish. - More watery eyes!

In the twilight of his years, Billy considered how wonderful it would be if he could send the Old Man a thank you letter now! - It wasn’t difficult for him to visualise the Old Man with his white hair and moustache sitting in his wicker chair in the tent surrounded by small palm trees and fruit bushes in the big desert in the sky.

"Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people move our souls to dance. They awaken us to a new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom, and make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. Some people stay in our lives awhile, leave footprints on our hearts and we are never, ever the same." - Flavia Weedn.

.


Bill - the National Serviceman

After two and a half years of involuntary servitude in the British army Billy was finally on the last leg of his journey home. He had spent a couple of weeks in a transit camp in Port Suez living on chocolate bars, because the food was atrocious and he couldn’t wait to enjoy a decent meal and see his family after being away for a year.

At only 6,000 tons the troopship was quite small and was packed to capacity with young soldiers who had completed their National Service. There was an infectious excitement amongst the troops as the little ship made its way through the Suez canal to Port Said and into the Mediterranean heading for Blighty.

The sweet pungent aroma of Port Said was not apparent until their arrival, so the prevailing wind must have been in their favour. After docking at Port Said, the ship was surrounded by the usual bumboats bobbing about in the water, with the vendors hoping to sell their goods to the occupants of the ship. Purchasing items from the bumboats was accomplished by a system of ropes over the side of the ship, which added to the allure. Billy considered exchanging his watch one more time, but decided to stop while he was ahead. It was the last chance to participate in this exciting ancient barter system, but he successfully fought off the temptation.

On the second day of the voyage there was a gigantic storm the likes of which had not been seen in the Mediterranean for many years. As the raging sea increased the small ship bobbed about in the water like a cork in a bathtub. Practically everyone aboard was sick on the first day, but Billy held out, eating plenty of good food, which was not only a novelty, but also recommended for combating seasickness. Finally when he was washing his mess tins at the hot water tanks, the sight in front of him was too much and he capitulated. Losing all control he almost fell down on the water soaked deck and could easily have disappeared through one of the openings in the side of the ship to swim with the fishes, had it not been for the intervention of a giant lad standing behind him. His saviour grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and held him up on his feet, while he did what he had to do.

Naturally Billy was very grateful and became friendly with this young man who was at least 6 feet 4 inches tall, with shoulders as wide as the proverbial barn door. It turned out that they had something in common; because the big fella had just been released from a detention barracks in Egypt. As the storm continued, everyone wanted to get into the centre of the ship on the top deck, because the movement there was less unsettling. Competition for these positions was very contentious, but as they say, ‘the 500 pound gorilla can sit anywhere he wants’ and the big fella always took Billy with him. They would while away their time playing cards and chewing the fat in the best seats of the house, which was the centre of the port side top deck overlooking the ocean.

The physical attributes of his new found friend was of particular value getting into the picture palace on the ship, because there were always more than three times as many soldiers waiting to get in, than the small room could accommodate.

Every day a large group would gather outside the cinema at least an hour before it was due to commence and at five minutes to opening time the big fella and his friend would leave the comfort of their cosy quarters and make their way to the movies. As the door opened and everyone fought to get in, the big fella would push his way through the crowd, dragging his friend behind him by the scruff of the neck, like parting the Red Sea. It was an exceptionally effective unconventional entrance and no one ever voiced an objection, because the outcome of a rumble with the big fella was a foregone conclusion.

The damaged pier at Malta was a reminder of the storm as they approached Valletta harbour, where the small ship dropped anchor for a few hours to take on supplies. The high scenic cliffs of the harbour were the background for one of the most thrilling sights Billy had ever witnessed. From the top deck of the small troop ship, he stood in awe of the large magnificent British Aircraft carrier slowly making its way into the calm protected water. The gigantic warship was so close that everything was visible through the openings of the lower decks, where aircraft with their folded wings sat in waiting. Royal Marines stood to attention on the upper deck in their splendid blue and red tunics with white webbing and helmets, presenting arms as the brass band played Land of Hope and Glory. It was truly a magnificent sight, which cannot adequately be described in words and produced an emotional response from all the onlookers. Billy was almost inspired to reenlist – Almost! Next stop Liverpool and the train to London!

The excitement was at fever pitch as the soldiers disembarked at Liverpool and waited in a single line to go through the customs. Billy quickly observed that he was the only one carrying two kitbags and felt uncomfortable, because one of them was filled with the Nuffield cigarettes, compliments of his friend the storekeeper. Billy’s anxiety increased as he approached the front of the line and noticed MPs standing with the customs inspectors. Low and behold his guardian angel appeared again in the form of the big fella, who was standing behind him without any luggage and was astute enough to size up the situation. Without saying a word the big fella grabbed one of the kitbags, placed it on his shoulder and in keeping with his normal aplomb, walked right to the front of the line passing the customs as though he had a special right of way.

The big fella then returned the kitbag and ran excitedly with all the other soldiers to the waiting train – Billy never saw him again and often wondered how his modus operandi fared in civilian life. He was a friend in need and a friend indeed - Ships passing in the night!

As the troop train chugged it’s way south, everyone in the carriage wanted to sit by a window and enjoy the view of the deep green rolling countryside, which they so obviously loved and didn’t realize until then how meaningful it was - A reunion, with ties so strong that dialogue was unnecessary. The contrast with the barren desert they left behind was a sharp reminder of their wonderful heritage and enveloped them in pride.

At London the men were taken to a place where they disposed of all their unnecessary equipment – It was like a side show at the fair, with the enthusiastic soldiers pitching water bottles in one large container, webbing here, mess tins there and overcoats in a big heap. They were only left with what they were standing in, which was their uniform, beret and of course their well maintained footwear.

Everyone was provided with a civilian suit including a shirt and tie, which were packed neatly in a little cardboard box with a carrying handle. The latest style in trilby hats was also dispensed to the would-be debonair. This outfit looking like it came right out of the front window from Burtons Clothing store was suitable attire for the billiard hall upstairs.

Last but not least they received the money they were due, a train ticket and ushered out the door without even a medal for surviving all that army grub! To Billy’s delight the whole demobilization process was over in less than half an hour and to all intents and purposes he was free.

The only remaining task, which was really a pleasure, was the satisfaction of burning his uniform at the bottom of the garden the following morning, while his bemused father, the ex-RSM looked on in silence. Billy has since regretted not saving the hat badge and his arm insignia and replacements would not be the same.

In the twilight we are left with our thoughts and the realisation that the only things we regret are the things we didn’t do.

Billy - The Civilian

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer and sans End

Omar Khayyam

Copyright © Bill Hawksford.