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!