Part 2 : Off To War

I left several friends, well-wishers and family behind at London Kings Cross standing all the way enroute for Preston to join a company of basic training recruits in August 1943.

We were starting to win the war at last in North Africa and the Med but I soon found that it was no personal joyride with the Kings regiment of Lancashire who were bent on knocking us teenagers into shape.

I was greeted at the barrack gates by a “Where the hell have you come from The Halle orchestra ! Get a bloody haircut” and I wasn’t yet even kitted out in uniform. The next morning I was reported for having shaving cream behind my ears and had to scrub the floors in the officers’ quarters. The glamour of joining up as a volunteer suddenly faded, but already in a few days I had many letters from friends and relatives that boosted my morale.

It took 6 weeks to pass out at this course spent mostly on the sand dunes of the coast at Formby. It was a good job I was fit with all the full gear we had to run in along the dunes taking care not to get a dirty rifle barrel.

Sunday was always peace and I used to take myself off to explore the countryside for I had never seen real hills and small mountains before.

I went right up the Pennine summits having gone as far as I could on fascinating rural single track railways. One day I stood at a bustop and an old lady who lived nearby came out of her house to invite me in for tea and I quickly found out that the northeners were far more hospitable than people down south. She had no fear of a complete stranger and I must have seemed really young to her.

I made the mistake of worrying about my broken education and and had brought a load of books with me into the army world but 2 kitbags was soon too much to carry and they were later much reduced.

I had to cross from one Liverpool station to the other on my first journey home on leave and I always remember how a man of about 50 which was old to me then picked up my extra kit bag and put it on his bicycle to walk with me across the city. You never forget kind people.

I was very pleased at the end of that 6 weeks to be told that my wish to join the Royal Engineers had been granted.

It felt a bit safer compared to the infantry at the time but in fact I could have been entirely wrong there. My grammar school education short though it was had proved a bit of a help here. Even more was the fact that I had spent a year helping a close friends farmer father drive his tractor.

To my amazement I found that I had to report to Kitchener barracks Chatham no more than 30 miles from home to Herne Bay but later in the 12 week course I was soon disappointed as I was only granted one weekend home in all that time.

When I visit the RE association meetings now as a life member in Chatham at nearby Brompton barracks, the serving members find it hard to believe that we used to sleep in rows on straw mattresses on a cold concrete floor. We also had no hot water and we had to be checked in by 11pm at night as reveille was at 5:45

I was stupid enough to let it be known I had played hockey at school so I had my Saturday afternoons ruined by being ordered to play with the officers.

My family had friends just over the river in Frindsbury and I had a steady girlfriend there and not only do I still know the same family today, one of whom got killed in the RAF but she gave me tremendous support for the next 3 years wherever I went in uniform. Everybody did of course and I cant praise the postal services and canteen services and clubs enough who all helped us so much.

The biggest item about being in the Medway towns was the river where we were out on the pontoons daily learning to build bridges. Even though I was not a swimmer it did not worry me on the water because of all the discipline and organisation around me. I enjoyed the rowing having done a bit on the sea at home.

Now at 18 and Xmas just over I was sent on a variety of mechanical equipment training courses on all the kind of things used in road construction. I was not at all happy with a thing called an RB20 with an enormous bucket and dragline and nearly pulled the wrong leaver and brought the whole thing jib and all crashing down. The Irish instructor scared the daylights out of me.

Next came a nice little posting to the Isle of Sheppey even nearer to home and yet so far, driving a dumper which was my first experience of driving on the road. We were repairing the airfield and I could see Herne Bay pier over the sea on a clear day. However the best thing was that we were a very small section billetted in a commandered private house and even though we had to sleep on the floor it felt so much more civilised.

Suddenly I was taken away to the midlands somewhere and it was a unit preparing for the invasion of Europe but of course I didn’t know this at the time. The next thing I knew was that I was summoned to the COs office wondering what I had done wrong or was about to hear.

“We’ve made a mistake about your age sapper and thought you were 6 months older and we are having to send you somewhere else .You are not to discuss this with anyone else”. This was a fighting unit and I knew you had to be 18 years 6 months to be shot at and so I knew something was afoot.

Next in the early summer more by chance than intention to be kind to me ,I am sure, I was sent to a special unit in a grand country house at the village of Nutfield on the Kent side of Redhill right on the same 410 bus route that went straight through Biggin Hill where my parents lived on its way to Bromley. I could often get home in the evenings without even a special pass and as the last bus back at 10pm only went to a garage 4 miles short of my billet I enjoyed some high speed walking at the end of lovely summer days.

At this time the D Day landings were announced and we all knew how lucky I had been that the error in my age had been noticed for at that moment I was still just 10 days too young to get killed.

However we all know other mistakes like that have been overlooked in the past.

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