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WW2 - People's War

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Contributed by 
Civic Centre, Bedford
People in story: 
Harry Banks
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Contributed on: 
04 June 2004

(The war story of Harry Banks, as told to his daughter)

For me it started before the war. Uncle George was my hero, and together we followed events in Europe with the same enthusiasm as small boys and uncles ususally follow Rangers and Celtic. the Spanish Civil War raged. We moved pins on a map, our spirits moving with the fortunes of the Spanish Republican Army.

I was also in the Cadet Corps, where the best traditions of the British Army were kept before us. My young mind held a potent mixture of revolution and patriotism; a conviction that the right must triumph.

On September 10, 1940, when I was sixteen I waked into the recruiting office, pretending I was nineteen. I was short sighted but Uncle george scoffed at those who wore glasses. I got near the Army Doctor's reading list as I waited, memorised it, and later recited, peering at the blurred letters. Next day I was in the Infantry training Centre at Inverness, a soldier at last; under age, under sized and short sighted, and "Dead Keen" as we said in those days.

My companions were all volunteers under twenty, from every class and county. From East Enders to young gents confident of an early commission. Though a Highland Regiment, half our number were English. At first they disparaged bagpipes and salted porrige, but soon became more Scots that the Scots, wearing the Balmoral and Hackle with aggressive pride.

We trained among the Locs and Bens, marched hard and slept rough. We leaped about assault courses and mastered the scant weapons available in those urgent days when invasion seemed imminent. Anti-paratroop marches were practised. they were hard gruelling affairs, the first mile wearing gas masks. An inter company contest was held for the fastest time and our platoon marched behing the Company commander, Captain Horsborough. The Captain strode ahead with long strides, determined his company should win. Men fell out exhausted, left, right, and centre. only half the platooon completed the march, which ended with a hundred yards charge at the high port, then ten rounds fired at dummies. I fired the tenth round and then passed out.We had won, and Caption Horsborough was delighted, from then on we were the Horsborough platoon. He threw a party for us at the N A F F I and at this party two of the new-formed commandos, then called S S were present. The Commando officers gave a lecture on raiding tactics and we listened with admiration and envy - and blow me down chum, they wore glasses. Uncle George must have been mistaken. I reported to the M O and henceforth saw the army more clearly through steelrimmed stay-on specs.
About this time the army checked the age of about a hundred of us who had jumped the gun. We were posted to the home defence battalion of the Black Watch and fated to two years home service. At seventeen this seemed a lifetime and we feared we would miss the war. We grew restless with months of training and no action. The chance of adventure abroad grew distant. The frustration was hard to bear. Drawing on Uncle George's veiws I expressed frightful opinions at A B C A lectures and anywhere I could. Only being "dead keen" kept me out of serious trouble. I was Lance-Corporal at this time. I went absent and tried to re-enlist, this time as air-gunner, again adding to my age. But the authorities were more strict about proof and I could not produce the demanded birth certificate.
After several attempts involving seven medical exams I saw it hopeless. It has been no holiday, short of money amd sleeping in cheap rooms. I travelled to Edinborough and made a last attempt there. No good. In a public lavatory I changed into my uniform, sent my suitcase home by rail and went for a good meal. Then I walked into the guard room at Edinburgh Castle and reported to the guard commander.
I was in the Castle Prison for 4 days until an escort arrived for my unit. Back at the battalion I was again placed under close arrest. This was the 70th Black Watch, a young soldiers battalion commanded by Lt.Col. Gomme-Duncan, now Lt.Col Gomme-Duncan M P. The impoverished guard room was an ordinary army hut, and all boots and clothing except shirts were taken from the prisoners each night as a precaution against escape. At 2 o'clock in the morning 2 regimental policemen came in drunk. They moved along the line of naked sleepers, kicking with their heavy boots and punching those who stood up. It is difficult to defend yourself against this kind of thing, barefooted and in your shirt tail. One of the older Sergeants, a man called Scot, heard about this and reported it to the Colonel. The regimental policemen were removed from their jobs.
With black eyes and a swollen jaw I stood before the Colonel charged with being absent without leave. He fixed a severe stare on me and asked for and explaination. Fortunately I was able to prove that I had been trying to re-enlist since the moment I went absent, and I explained my impatience to get into action. He was a silver-haired officer who has served in the First Wolrd War. He knew that wars lasted long enough and that many of his young officers would be maimed or killed before this one is over. He told me that the time would pass and that I would see action soon enough; he explained that armies could not work with soldiers going where they liked and he spoke of duty of sticking to one's post however dull. I was entenced to a months detention, suspended for three months, which meant I could return to duty but must not come before him again within 3 months or I would serve a months detention. I kept out of trouble and at the end of the period was a Lance Corporal again.
Leave was rare in those days, but when I did get home, my cousins boyfriend was in the armchair. He kept the home fires burning for my cousin who has long since joined the A T S. He used to say it was time I got in on the army. He said he would be joining the guards or something, next year perhaps, and would at least be Captain in 6 months. Cousin Minnie was obviously besotted with him and hung onto his every word. When the call-up got him, 3 weeks recruit training landed him in hospital and he was discharged unfit. In Dundee I made friends with a family. The 25 year old son has lost his fiancee to one of our regiment. "It is the uniform and all that" he said disconsolately. I thought of Minnie's admiration for the dodging conceited Jake. "Being a soldier means nothing to women" I told him.

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