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!