- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Reg Reid, Billy Grills
- Location of story:
- Military Prison-Fort Dahlen Barracks, Chatham
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 June 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Reg Reid and has been added to the site with the author's permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
The Lighter Side of War
CHAPTER 8: Military Prison-Fort Dahlen Barracks, Chatham.
October - November 1941
Prisoners were awoken at 6:00 am and three minutes were allowed for a cold shower and a shave. A lot of you will have experienced the ten weeks or so nonstop bull and activities of basic infantry training on National Service: Drill, PE, Drill, Weapon training, Drill, five mile runs and Drill, Route marches in fast and harassing sequence. It was like that at Fort Dahlen, everything at the double right from the morning bed inspection. If blankets weren't in perfect folded order they were kicked around the cell by the inspecting sergeant for you to do again, and then you'd be pushed to be on time for the daily sequence of events. This went on not for just ten weeks but for the whole of your time at Fort Dahlen prison.
They drilled with 303 rifles but were never issued with bullets and though they had sessions where they had to, say, take a bren gun apart and reassemble it blindfolded, they never went on a firing range.
Bulling of Personal Kit - boots, belts, webbing was not so much insisted upon, perhaps the idea was not to give prisoners too much pride in themselves. Drill was initially a shambles for the new prisoner because marching pace had to suit the guardsman used to a relatively slow pace and the light infantryman used to marching at 180 paces a minute. Hair was cut short but not totally shaved off as might have been expected.
Men were allotted daily work: brushing the square, cleaning the camp, painting, working in the cookhouse, fetching and carrying coal or sand, making sandbags and there was no skiving. They were harassed at every turn by the NCOs.
Food was edible but very basic, and was often second quality, e.g. potatoes were army rejects, otherwise destined for pigs.
I read somewhere that 99% of troops, sailors and airmen who have been sentenced to time in military gaols never transgress again, so the system has something to recommend it!
Butch can't remember the exact date in 1941 that he went in, as though trying to expunge the episode from his mind. He recalls just one man who accepted, even welcomed, prison life. This was a Cockney orphan infantryman who let himself be tormented by a prison sergeant, then fought with him and got his term extended. Butch reacted with horror at this but the Cockney pointed out, "I have three meals a day, a shower, clothing and a bed. Out of here, I'd probably be in the shit somewhere with the Infantry, likely to die. I'd be bloody cannon fodder, mate".
The Londoner was the exception; everyone else tried to toe the line and wanted out.
Prisoners, from all three services, were three to a cell. They immediately lost any rank they had attained and left prison at the lowest rank of their service. Butch was relieved that they didn't strip him of his 3rd Class Mechanic certificate.
He shared a cell with two guardsmen, ex sergeants, one from the Scots Guards, the other from the Grenadiers. Both were serving a year's detention. The Scots Guards ex-sergeant had led his platoon on parade past Buckingham Palace and, in a moment of madness, had swung his rifle round his head and had thrown it over the railings into the Palace grounds, shouting "F*** the King and Queen!"
The Grenadier ex-sergeant had been courting an upper-class girl, and in the class ridden Service life of those days this was not on. Her father, Captain of a destroyer in the Royal Navy and her brother, a naval lieutenant, had waited outside his barracks to confront him and warn him off. He had insisted, "Your daughter loves me. I love her and we'll continue to see each other". At this the naval lieutenant had taken a swipe at the sergeant who retaliated by knocking the brother and then the father out.
So much for the Senior Service! - But he was arrested and they got their revenge by having the girl sent away to work with the Diplomatic Service in Jamaica.
Young love will win out and the sergeant got a letter from her every week in the Diplomatic bag! Let's hope they both survived the war, got married and lived happily ever after.
For the prisoners, an everyday chore in the morning was taking the slop buckets around the square to an old fashioned midden away from the camp but, within its bounds. This had to be done at the double of course!
One day Butch noticed a RAF prisoner walking, staggering rather, with two full buckets across the square. Inevitably a sergeant bellowed "ROUND THE SQUARE, NOT ACROSS THE SQUARE - COME HERE MAN - AT THE DOUBLE!" The RAF lad speeded up, tripped and dropped the buckets on to the sacred square. ..... He was made to scoop up the sodden turds with his hands and put them back in the buckets and for this episode he got two extra weeks' detention, one for each bucket. Crime: desecration of the Square!
One of the jobs Butch had to do at Fort Dahlen barracks was to sweep the square with a six foot wide brush. Another prisoner pulled the brush with a rope and he steered it. He was skilled at doing straight lines - thanks to his work as a grounds-man back home at the Hallamshire Golf Club.
The other prisoner one day, told the sergeant he felt ill, but the sergeant insisted he keep on pulling "that effin' brush". He probably thought the lad was pulling a fast one. Butch could see he was ill though and tried to help by pushing rather than just steering, when the lad suddenly collapsed.
He had pneumonia and died later in the adjacent military hospital.
Being incarcerated was a big setback and now this lad's death weighed Butch's spirits down, but not for long. He believed he had a guardian angel, or good fortune in the general thrust of life following him around like a faithful dog. You can make your own luck and this was the case on `the sandbag run'.
Prisoners had the job of filling sandbags and, being the Army, the bags were right at one end of the camp and the pile of sand was right at the other end. A prisoner and shovel were stationed at the pile of sand and two more were stationed at the bags, hand shovels at the ready. Butch volunteered to be the barrow boy, naturally, wheeling his barrow over grass tall and narrow, collecting sand for the baggers. The `sandbag run' went along by the high wire boundary fence for several hundred yards, then the fence became high railings topped by barbed wire where the boundary was shared with the military hospital. The ground fell away at this point into quite a dip for a couple more hundred yards of shared boundary. Lesser men, temporarily out of sight of a camp sergeant and the armed guard, would have had a rest or even a quick drag or two, had they the fags, before moving on. Butch saw a matron and three nurses appear from a back door of the hospital at the other side of the railings - visions like the angels of Mons, and shouted to them to come over because he hadn't seen a woman for weeks! (And this is a bloke who was supposed to be shy!)
They did better than that. Two of the nurses came over and the other nurse and matron went back through the door to return with sandwiches, cakes, fags and lemonade, which they passed through the railings to him. All these goodies were shared with the other prisoners, and with the sergeant and guard, and it became a regular feature of the sandbag run.
It was good for morale and got him more favourable treatment from the sergeant. Even sergeants can be human you know.
To be on the safe side though, Butch, who didn't smoke of course, kept a few fags back as possible bargaining chips.
If men were needed for the war effort they were released from gaol whatever the crime they had committed to land them there.
A sailor, a nasty piece of work if there ever was one, in Fort Dahlen for violent assault, was in turn constantly harassed and taunted by a prison army sergeant, happily not the sergeant on the sandbag run. The nasty piece of work was suddenly released to join the crew of a destroyer.
The ship returned after several weeks tour of duty and the crew had a day's leave ashore at Chatham. The sailor knew which pub his tormentor frequented and stood outside the door in the blackout, empty bottle in hand.
When the sergeant came out, he saw the bottle coming down and backed off, but too late to stop the glass lacerating his forehead and face. The sergeant was a tough nut, bloody but unbowed, and even while being tended by Army medics got two MPs to track the sailor to his ship.
The Captain of the destroyer let the MPs search his vessel, but they couldn't find the sailor. The only place they weren't allowed to go in was the Captain's cabin; this was strictly out of bounds. Next day the destroyer set sail, with the sailor on board. The captain had allowed him sanctuary in his cabin while the MPs were searching the ship. A case of the Navy looking after its own.
Butch didn't harbour any such evil thoughts of revenge against Driver Lush, in fact he couldn't even bring himself to dislike the lad who must have worked himself into a right state to shoot at his wife and cousin. But the fact was, he was in gaol and Lush wasn't. He felt a sense of injustice and a grudge against the Army in general and the Army legal system in particular. He would make the Army work for him as he had done with the Ariel Red Hunter bikes at Newark. He would live the day, every day. "Carpe blood -y di-em, seize the blood -y day", as Rhondda Jack Powell had advised back at Broxmore in his precise Welsh accent.
He was patriotic and would do his bit but wouldn't let patriotism come in the way to make a bob or two at the Army's expense. Self seeking with eventual demob in view, but with a sense of humour, a sense of humour and a heart of gold, plus 2nd class then a 1st class mechanic's certificate. That's how he wanted to see himself.
He didn't know the fictional army characters - one Czech, the other American not yet then invented but he was to become somewhere between `The Good Soldier Schweijk' and US `Sergeant Ernest Bilko', King of the Motor Pool at Fort Baxter, Kansas, Middle America.
Like Schweijk, army rules and tribulations would be as water off a duck's back. He would `play silly buggers' and ignore them.
Like Bilko he would take every chance to make money, though he was destined to be more successful than the comical GI.
`A' platoon at Broxmore was a good crowd, a good laugh; not miserable beggars like `B' and `C' platoons - and he looked forward to getting back with them, sooner or later.
The chance came sooner, rather than later. After only two months of his sentence, which seemed like two years, he got a rail warrant, Chatham to Salisbury via London. The Army needed mechanics. The build-up of British forces throughout the U.K. was continuing apace with the eventual aim of hitting back against the Wehrmacht.
The US had entered the war after the Japanese surprise attack on their huge base at Pearl Harbour in 1941 and, Churchill having persuaded Rooseveldt that the defeat of Hitler should be given priority over the Far East, GIs and US airmen were arriving in Britain in large numbers.
Hitler's forces had most of Europe in its iron grip but the Royal Navy and the RAF had ensured Britain was too tough a nut to crack. Instead the Wehrmacht sliced their way into Russia but were destined to find the Russian winter more formidable than the Red Army.
Among the seething movement of men and machines in England a lorry was to be sent to pick Butch up at Salisbury Station to take him back to Broxmore House.
Devonian Driver Billy Grills waited with his Bedford 3 tonner at Salisbury Station.
He waited in vain. Butch had stopped off in London, saw the sights - there was bomb damage but still a great atmosphere, he had a good meal and stayed overnight in a nice hotel with much appreciated bath and sheets on the bed.
Prisoners weren't allowed money - but they earned a small amount which was given to them when they were freed. Butch had a big sum in reserve however, the big white five pound note that the Jewish lad, ex bookmaker, at South Littleton, had given him for enabling him to miss the Burma draft. Reg had taken the precaution before his imprisonment of unstitching the RASC badge on his army cardigan, putting the folded five pound note behind the badge, and stitching it on again.
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