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.