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- Location of story:
- shorncliff barracks 1940
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 September 2004
(Part 3) First rifle.
His monumental day arrived when the notice was posted with the information that he was to be issued with a rifle and side arms. In line with much of the other items the equipment and Canadian Ross rifles were First World War Issue, with a bayonet about fourteen inches long. Nobody in the group worried about the age of the things, it was a rifle and that all that mattered. The quartermaster and his record book and the final signing over of it and its ‘your rifle’, the number of the rifle recorded with all its responsibilities to the young soldier to guard with his very life.
Everybody seemed excited with the rifles, nothing else mattered, and cleaning them like mad was not a chore. These were the real things. For him once he had removed the protecting grease and things he got busy with the cleaning rags. There was excitement in every movement as the young hands ran over the polished woodwork and just sat there cooing at the thing and giving it that extra rub with clean clothes until it shone even more.
Nothing seemed too much to offer this instrument of death. Repeated action of cleaning the barrel of the rifle, time and time again he dropped the weighted pull-through with its four by two through the breach and down the barrel. Each inspection after the pull-through made to get that perfect polished barrel. Satisfaction was hard to obtain, and only came when the four by two cloth came out of the barrel without a mark on it. This was the day big responsibility, a man’s world as he sat with that rifle and a clip of five live rounds of ammunition toying with them as things of beauty. It wasn’t long before they were put in the right priority place of things. Getting to use them took time. Inspections of these firearms were as regular as breakfast and carried out to make sure that they remained the priority of your existence and complete.
Growing into a soldier was taking time; it was early days the boy soldier was not quite the sharpshooter on the films. Getting down and loading the thing was bad enough. Some idiot had designed the equipment without any thought for the body carrying it. Pouches for the ammunition seemed to want to crack a few ribs as he took up firing position, the small pack on his back wanted to get into the act by pushing the tin hat forward over the eyes. Bayonet and water bottle seemed to want to find another place on the tender parts of the body.
Use of rifle and equipment.
Cannot repeat too often, who ever designed the equipment must have been a friend of Germany a real Quisling, with the early experience of getting into a firing position being almost too much, things sticking into the most imagery places, steel hat over eyes it was “Balls to them all” as he unwound from this mess. With as much panache as he stood back on his feet then stood to attention, then with a little glee from his tormentor was ordered once again to drop to the ground and takes up a new firing position.
It again catches the Sergeant’s eye and by his voice he’s not very happy about it. He and his three strips are as helpful as ever. Words are dispensed with. Standing over him he then kicks the lad’s feet apart then to add insult to injury he shows how strong he his by pulling on the end of the rifle as the lad is trying to hole it into position, the lad has failed miserably.
The sergeant’s eyes now drop to the lowest part of his eye sockets and looks down without moving his head. As if to get some relief from what he is observing, shouts "what a bloody shower." With the skill of a ballet dancer he stands over the lad, his dignity has now been stretched to the full as he bends his back to reach the rifle of the offender to pull on the end of the rifle. Then with the skill of highly trained tormentor jabs it back onto the shoulder-blade. He his so overcome with grief at the thought that His Majesty had gone to all this expense to provide this rifle, and now on the end of it was this bungle of shit. In a voice loud enough to wake the dead he shouts, “The bloody rifle is waving about like a donkey’s dick, hold the bloody thing." His extended descriptions on passing would have brought many a tear to many a mother’s eye.
In the passing of time all these over zealous instructions were over. The big day and moment had come to load and fire the first live rounds of ammunition. Same old routines as he got down to fire his first rounds of live ammunition, as before his whole rifle seemed to waltz around in his arms. Dam it all he was trying to do what the sergeant has so pleasantly said before in his earlier training. It had all been in vain. Bang oh and the lad’s shot had left the rifle all right but was nowhere to be seen and had gone over the top of the target landing in some other part of the range. With each shot at the target the butt of the rifle recoiled off the shoulder, each time that area becomes a little tenderer. A lesson was being learnt, hold the bloody thing tightly as if you owned it and make sure that it fitted into the shoulder.
His first trip to the target was embarrassing; it showed no bullet holes. After a few hours the shoulder got used to the recoil of the rifle, he was doing what he liked best firing live ammunition. There had been little co-ordination between his arms and hands and breathing, as num as his brain was the confidence started to creep in and things settled down surprising the sergeant and he was able to hit the target. No doubt about it the young soldier’s aim had improved, his days on the firing range had helped to turn away those boring spit and polish days. These days he enjoyed.
Even his duty hours in the pits seemed to fill his time. God knows the pits were very basic; it was the banging from the rifles that in some way excited him. There was the odd badly aimed shot that ricocheted off the top of the bank, tumbling some of the loose earth bank down on him. Bad as the pits were they did give ample protection for those observing and marking the targets. As the exercise was intended he was there to gain experience of depth of the trench and keeping the head down as the sound of live rounds being shot in his direction, he reasoned that there may some nut as untrained as he firing in his direction. It was environment of the range and not the simple task of marking targets that fired his imagination.
Methods in the marking the values of each shot were standard. Targets were controlled by phone from the firing end. Each shot registered by the position of the disc on the end of a long pole. Delay was kept to the minimum when marking its position on the target, any delay usually meant that the shot had gone wide of the target. Successful and the disc were placed over the hole made by the shot, the black side of the disc being placed over the target’s centre showed hitting the Bulls eye. Its white side being moved back and forward across the target was the most common side in the early days. It showed missed hits on the target. Inner, magpie and outer made up the rest of the markings on the target. Magpie shots were registered by spinning the shaft in the palm of the hands. Signals could be read quite easily. Grouping with five rounds came in later stages of the training.
Were the risks justifiable?
Were these risks justifiable? Or was it the experience needed to become a fighting soldier. It was an organised risk to his life at this stage that never seemed to have any value to him. Real action turned out to be so different. It was a pure necessity to learn the ways of war, closing his eyes in these early days was his only answer until it was time to get out of that bloody place. Sometimes the odd bounce back of the bullet ricocheting did open his eyes as it spun off the bank.
He would have liked to drift of into safer waters; his army training was getting through to him. This was the place he had been ordered to stay in and that was that. Didn’t think much of it but the old brain worked out the consequence of not doing it
First World automatic weapons.
The automatic weapons we had were mostly First World War; in fact one of the Lewis Guns was missing its land based cooling jacket, and had been used on the old fighting planes. The thing would have been useless in a long fight. Come to think about those times, the only modern thing they had was the postage stamp on the letter from home.
Bed inspection was about the dreariest duty. Boots and socks, blankets and the hold-hall with all its bits and pieces were put on display for inspection. NCOs usually the most bloody, they pranced around with the power to break their fall guy’s resistance to their stupidity. Bed layouts faulted for the smallest of things. It took ages to prepare it for the inspection. Their mess-up meant rushing around to reset it before the officer’s inspection. Keep cool and balls to the big, the short, and the small, the time may come to level things up.
Boots were placed with the bottoms up to show the number of studs and their condition. Blankets folded in certain way; knife fork and spoon in there allotted place, sewing kit was there with the button stick the all-important to the army was on also a part of the display. This button stick was the icon of the polishing army world, easily found amongst the other cleaning kit, the blasted thing shone brightly with the constant polishing of the buttons. For those that never had the joy of using one it was designed to fit over and around the buttons to protect the cloth of the coat from the over spill of the polish and black marks of the metal polish. His greatcoat had rows of these damn greedy buttons that in barrack time wallowed in blasted polish; the rest of the metal was mostly on the webbing to feed the ends through dozens of belt buckle. Another added misery was the blasted webbing had to be scrubbed, blancoed and the metal work polished.
The army razor issue was his first razor, this with the shaving brush, toothbrush and other things were kept in a hold-all. In the early days the shaving kit the butt of many a NCOS sense of humour, the most common, “You dozy lad, for God’s sake borrow the cook-house cat and let the bloody thing lick off that bloody bum fluff.” Wheeling that razor for the first time was competitive with the old barber’s pole. What would have happened if it were the days of the open razor? His mind runs wild with the possible results and thanked his God all this would disappear when he moved on to new pastures.
There was no doubt that the small amounts wage money did make him thrifty. Learning to keep it became his main concern, doing all he could do to keep it. It was the early mystery days of the rookie where nothing he had or earned belonged to him. Even his pay was to be plundered to pay barrack-room damages for ones he had never had the pleasure to bed down in; he had no part in any damage to any other building. It was most unfair, no description of the damage was ever offered. This was another safe area for the army to do as they pleased. A word of protest and the powers registered it as insubordination; a good bloke could be dammed for the rest of his stay in the service. Early days of isolation within his civilian family group had at least prepared him for this service life. Silence prevailed if he had to do battle with authority with the barrack-room damages, it would be the better to pick the winning time.
Pay parade the day of waving hands and stamping feet with the officer on parade sits there with his arms resting on the table, looking a bit like an Egyptian Phoenix. He is there as the paymaster of the great provider of this generous handout of fifteen shillings less barrack-room damage per week. This bumptious extravagance was just about enough cash for a couple of short trips to the N.A.F.F.I.
The officer’s miserable pay clerk sat there a minor copy of Mr. Scrooge. His contribution to the war effort at the time was to call the name and read out the details of the pay. A further list gave the details of reductions for barrack-room damages. Barely looks up and points one of his scrawny fingers at the place to sign for this generous handout.
A disappointed young soldier looks down picks up the pay less the barrack room damages and his AB.64.
His saluting of the officer barely makes the grade, that horrible sergeant stands there with his red sash band draped around his shoulder eyeing the lad up and down, then bust into the usual remarks to impress the officer.
The end of the pay parade had come, off goes the under-paid soldier with the rest of his new buddies to the N.A.A.F. for the rock cake and tea and the special treat of a bar of chocolate. An added bonus to the daily visit was just to sit there and eye up his favourite N.A.F.F.Y girl. Bravado reigned! He with the other young ones highlighted the finer aspects of the ladies, their discussion usually fell flat for him when one of them would remark, “She’s old enough to be your mother; she is at least twenty-five." Balls to them! Then looks at his wad and tea and wanders off and thinks, "She may be old enough to be his mother, but what a mother!"
Within these early 1940 days in the army the highlight of the goodies was the availability of milk chocolate. Civil street’s chocolate was in short supply and it had been an under the counter goody for some time. Pre-shortage of chocolate before the NAFFY days had increased the appetite for any make. Booze at that time didn’t have the same priority to as the chocolate. His limited experience told him that chocolate didn’t give him such a bad head as the booze. Pressures to change started to flood in. There was a lot of pressure to drink booze and cigarettes. He was told that it was a part of growing up. Companionship and wanting to be a part of things helped to make him acquired the taste and as he got further into army life they became a priority.
Authority frowned upon wild sex in these early days (mostly spoken and bragged about, as in all normal youth groups.). The army had their age-old ways of cooling sexual ways of its young men was to lace the tea with bromide, it tasted awful looked just as bad and to be avoided when ever possible. For weeks he had been restricted to the barrack limits, every skirt that passed was getting the fullest of attention, it was the creeping paralysis of shear boredom that even the N.A.F.F.Y became dull and stale, almost the feeling of a prisoner of war.
At last it was time to show to the world this bunch of new soldiers. He with the rest was well inspected then they were dismissed, then breaking ranks moved out into the wicked world.
Conquests of the fairer sex the most common subject matter and common practice each to try to outdo the other in details. When this important side of youth’s bravado dried up the next important subject was beer consumption, it was limited; army pay didn’t match the ambitions of the new drinker. Anyway the pint glass at that time looked big enough to swim in; calling for a half a-pint was considered to be unmanly. It was a freedom that would last as long as the money in their pockets. At least this first trip out was an acknowledgement that they were tidy enough to be soldiers of the King. The picture on the left was strictly Napier Barracks style.
It was still the early days. The importance of the parade ground to army discipline had not really sunk in. and was about to be learned the hard way.
The All-Important Parade Ground.
Freedom to roam the barracks seemed to be as natural as apple pie. He was as innocent as a newborn baby as he decides to cut across the all-important Parade Ground. Within in striking of him distance a partly human noise filled his head. It had turned on the right switches for the army and was reduced him to an unmoving thing attached to the ground. Solid and stolid he had frozen had lost any control of his body. It would only move when that voice gave the order to move.
The order to move was given; feelings of a rabbit about to have its life shaken out of it by a stoat reduced this Private soldier into a jelly. "You come here"! It was long drawn out, with the strength of a hundred kilowatts that didn’t seem to provide the motion he expected from the lad.
“Double, double, faster” with ever-increasing voice volume, some how the lad was expected to travel even faster on those unusable solid legs of his. Move he did, and was now in close contact with this bellowing monster.
It was his first meeting with the RSM. His badges of rank stood out from his red tunic, the hat set as only a RSM could wear it now looking down with the airs and graces of a supreme overlord this monster looked down on this miserable creature. His badges of rank seemed to hover above the uniform, there was a no doubt about it, it was the Big Him with all his RSM’s leather equipment that shone with a mirror shine. Added to all this his short stick complete with brass knob long since removed from under his arm was waving about like a magic wand. Mesmerised by it was even a further step in turning the young one into a toad.
Distance between them was so close by now that he had to drop his arms to his side to place his face within inches of the shaking soldier.
In case the soldier was hard at hearing, the mouth that seemed to extend from the chin to the top of his head was placed over the ear, it trumpeted through the ear, a voice that sounded like thunder. The Sergeant-major’s performance had reached it peek, a captured audience surrounded this spectacle. Some were relieved that it wasn’t one of them standing there, others standing there bemused by the whole thing. Possible as a warning to those that might transgress upon his sacred ground he shouted out details of the terrible things that had been done to his parade ground. In great detail he raved on with what would be the result or even worse if his parade ground was denigrated.
It seems that his parade ground had suffered the weight of this toad’s size six in boots; the body that filled them was even a worse offender. No human he said especially a Private was blessed with the power to walk across his parade ground. A toad had soiled his parade ground; it was an act of God that he was at hand to cleanse this area of this crime the lad had committed.
From then on for the lad, the square was only there to play at being a barrack-room soldier. Come to think more about it now, memories of it is worth three coats of laughter.
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