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.
The new recruits were then herded into sleeping quarters with 25 steel frame beds lined up neatly on both sides, which would be their home for the next two months. There were no lockers for storing possessions, which would be superfluous anyway because everything the soldiers possessed, with the exception of what they were wearing during the day, was positioned on top of the beds in neat squares in a particular pattern - socks on the top left, underpants on the top right, small packs here, large packs there etc. Most of the recruits were under the impression that someone with a nervous compulsive disorder was responsible for dreaming up the idea of displaying underwear and other personal items in a neat orderly sequence on top of the beds. Others considered it to be a fiendish scheme to save the army buying additional furniture.
In the evening the soldiers were granted special dispensation to remove the objects and use the beds for their intended purpose. One night when all the beds were free of the neat little adornments a trainee from another room entered and ran down the line of beds stepping from one to the other, which was quite funny, but lost on the trainees who were conscientiously shining their boots and polishing their badges and buckles.
The following night the same thing happened and the third night the man entered and repeated his act, only this time when he reached the seventh bed it collapsed and sent him crashing to the floor. The trainees, who were all waiting for this to happen, thought it was hilarious and fortunately the man wasn’t hurt, with the exception of a few bruises. The trainees helped the man to his feet, reassembled the bed and this time locked the supports into position. From then on the exhibitionist’s interest in slapstick was not apparent.
It didn’t take the new recruits long to realize that the army had its own culture, which was imposed by the training instructors known as NCOs, standing for Non Commissioned Officers, who wore V-shaped white chevrons on their sleeves indicating their position in the hierarchy. These gentlemen who demanded respect, had exceptionally loud voices and showed very little tolerance for the trainees. They also displayed sour expressions on their faces, conveying the impression that they were not very happy with their chosen profession. In short they were graduates of charm school who had learned how to lose friends and alienate people. However to their credit, they were immaculately turned out in beautifully pressed uniforms, with brass buttons and buckles all shining and boots so highly polished, they resembled bright light bulbs. And they moved about the barracks with mechanical precision only equalled by robots, which was a good example to some and amusement to others - It was military theatre at its best.