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- Rod Balkham
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- Rod Balkham
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- 21 April 2004
By Rod Balkham (14628077 Signalman Balkham R.G.)
In talking about being called up into the army I have frequently joked that at least it got me out of nappies. Looking back now, the underlying implication seems true enough, for I had never been away from home before; home, where I was so used to being fed and fussed over by my mother. Like umpteen other rookies I was dropped in at the deep end.
It is a fact that the army always posted you as far away as they could possibly manage, thus ensuring that you wouldn't be able to nip off home at the weekend. Young Scotsmen would be sent to Devon to do their training; I was sent to Winston Barracks, near Lanark, roughly 400 miles from home.
After travelling for twelve hours I suddenly became aware that I was alone in a dreadfully stark and rainwashed dawn, rattling along in a cold and empty railway carriage, half an hour out of Glasgow. I have never felt more alone. It was as though I had been hurled into the far cold reaches of outer space. My eyes started with hopeless tears and a gasp of utter misery was wrenched from the depths of my being. How had I allowed them to drag me all this way from home? How dare they, the bastards! Yes, that's right: "the bastards".
My tears didn't last for long. All by myself I had discovered the old soldier's stock rejoinder to all the impositions inflicted by the army; I had found somebody to blame for that first hard knock, that somebody being the enormous, almighty Army. The bastards! Even before I'd set foot on a barrack square I had taken my first step to becoming a soldier.
They were waiting for me at Lanark station. I got down from the train and looked about me. "Ye f'rr th' barricks laddie?" asked a corporal, wearing the Tam o' Shanter of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. It was my first encounter with the broad Scots dialect. I took it to mean was I for the barracks so I said yes, I suppose I was, whereupon I was told to get myself into the back of a waiting truck ...... and wait.
I was beginning to clock up a series of firsts, this being my first 'wait' of thousands, for a vast amount of time during the coming years was to be spent doing nothing but wait. On this occasion the truck was waiting for the next train to deliver more raw recruits. Soon I found myself with Geordies, Jocks and Taffies, mothers' sons from all over the country, all being mixed together like ingredients going into a cooking pot. We were being taken into the system, drawn into the army's hungry maw, all of us young, fresh, clueless and malleable, about to be shouted at, sworn at, drilled and generally knocked into shapes resembling soldiers of the British army.
There were times during that initial six weeks concentrated training when I was sorely tempted to throw my rifle down in front of me onto the parade ground and declare "I will soldier no more". Somehow, though, I found I was able to sweat it out with the rest of them, and soon learned to put up with this strange new way of life. I got over an early encounter with salted Scotch porridge (the first mouthful travelled barely halfway down my throat, then came straight back onto my plate) and I survived the mandatory anti-tetanus and anti everything injections after spending several days hallucinating in a high fever on my barrack room bunk. In no time I was back, route marching with the rest of the platoon - and carrying the Bren gun. Like an idiot I had excelled in firing this rather heavy weapon, so it was inevitable that I would be detailed to carry it.
The end of July 1943 saw us marching thankfully - and oddly enough, as proud as peacocks behind a pipe band out of Winston Barracks - back down the road to Lanark railway station. I was one of forty freshly laundered Private soldiers on our way to Catterick Camp, ominously close to the North Yorkshire moors, to join the Royal Signals. We had to change trains at Edinburgh where we marched, once again led by the pipe band, all the way down Princes Street, receiving waves and cheers from the shoppers, and the office workers leaning out from their windows. I was most impressed with all this, telling my mother in a letter, written on the train, that Edinburgh castle was '... just like a Gibbs' Ivory castle, only not ivory. Whacking great turrets, perched right up on a massive hill of rock, right in the heart of the city...'. I was beginning to get quite excited, and almost lyrical, too, notching up still more 'firsts' when later, as the train stopped for a while at Dunbar, I wrote '... I can see some ships right out on the horizon; the North Sea! My word, I am certainly seeing things. I thought at first I didn't want to travel but now I am beginning to feel different about it. It is a great experience to see all these new sights, making one's life much more coloured and enriched . . . .’.
The letter was posted next day from Mons Lines, Catterick Camp. It is the only 1943 letter to have survived, salvaged by my brother from mother's collection after her death in 1972. Written on green paper, the pages now going brown with age and tearing apart at the folds, it bears the bluepencil reference number of the army censor. It had been passed with no deletions, my account of the heavy equipment we had to carry and my description of the straw palliasses on our barrack room bunks being of no interest to the unlikely prying gaze of the enemy.
It is my addition at the end of the letter that reflects my optimism at that time; "P.S. I am trusting so hard that I shall get my photo job that when I think of it, it seems impossible I shan't!". The heightened awareness evident in my descriptions of the sights I was seeing was part and parcel of the impression I still held of myself as a photographer. I just couldn't imagine being anything else, even in the army, and had already planned to get transferred to the Intelligence Corps so that I could become an army photographer. Only a couple of months away from my work on the Courier, I had yet to feel the pain of the bonds with my old life being broken. But the army was chipping away at me, reshaping me with their drills and marches, the physical exercises and the lectures. Now, in a world peopled with total strangers, my life had altered and I found myself projected into an entirely different dimension. My old life had been peeled away from me when I'd had to send my civy clothes back home, henceforth to be clad only in khaki.
Even when they started me on a wireless operators' course, I believed it wouldn't be long before notice was taken of my repeated requests for an interview so that I could explain to them that they'd put me in the wrong job, and point out what a valuable asset I would be as an already accomplished photographer.
My protestations were totally ignored. Then, nearly four weeks into my Signals training, I became desperate. On a suggestion by the Welfare Officer I applied to take a commission in the hope that this might offer me a better chance of realising my ambition. The idea of being thought of as possible 'officer material' appealed only marginally. I didn't care what rank I might be required to achieve as long as I could forget about wireless sets and start using my beloved cameras again.
In the middle of a class session one morning (it was just like being back at school), whilst we were being taught 'procedure phrases for Line or R/T', our squad corporal incredulously announced that he'd just received an order to dismiss me. I was to report immediately to the Movements Office, whereupon I discovered that I was being posted down to a Royal Signals unit at Putney.
Putney. Of all places! It seemed they'd forgotten that I lived not far from there. Back to civilisation, I told myself, rejoicing in the promise of weekend passes home. All at once there was the most wonderful feeling of release, of heading for better things. The Signals unit I had been posted to was billeted in a convent, in Roehampton Lane. This was only a short bus ride from Kingston where my brother Reg, and his wife, Edith, were living at that time and with whom Mum had gone to stay for a while. At the first opportunity I obtained a pass and went to visit them. As I got on the bus I felt that I was on home ground again and experienced an exquisite sensation of freedom, far removed from the restricting shackles of Catterick Camp. We had a great family reunion, albeit rather short, and when the time came to return Reg, Edith and Mum insisted on coming with me to say au revoir.
The convent, which had been taken over for the duration of the war, could not be seen from the road because it was situated behind a high brick wall. I said goodbye and went through a wooden door. It is at this moment in my story that I find I am quite incapable of reporting what happened next. I can retrieve no more than occasional faint images, ragged fragments like the disconnected flotsam of a rapidly dispersing dream. What I do know for sure is that fate took a cruel turn and all my hopes and aspirations of being a photographer were blown sky high.
The only clear recollection I have of my short, abortive posting is of standing in front of an anonymous Major who, as he scribbled away at his desk, casually informed me that I was to be returned to the training unit at Catterick. Then, as though he had just had a marvellous brainwave, he looked up at me and declared "We'll make a wireless operator out of you". This simply couldn't be happening to me; I just didn't believe it. "But I am already down for an officer selection board" I pointed out. "Sorry, old boy" drawled the Major "you're not now". He seemed to be unaware of the monumental mistake he was making, but try as I may I couldn't persuade him to look any further into the matter. "We've got nothing on you here" he told me - and it was then that I realised that all my papers had been lost; as far as the people at Putney were concerned I wasn't even supposed to be there.
I have a theory that it was the intense shock of this setback which created a blank in my memory. Just as a severe blow to the head can cause amnesia, I suffered from this blow so deeply that the only way I could face up to the awful prospect of returning to the remote and unfriendly vastnesses of Catterick Camp was to kid myself that the Putney promise had never even happened.
Some men appear to possess an internal tape recording which can be activated at will to churn out an account of their wartime experiences. Like Pavlov's dogs they can be turned on in an instant by some carelessly expressed reference, but by then it is too late to divert the conversation. With misty eyes they launch into a long drawn-out tale which you have already heard ad infinitum.
Because my days in the army were mostly anathema to me, at the end of it all I resolved to put them behind me, actually to forget what I then felt to have been a waste of time. As I write now I have to admit, of course, that my experience of the army did me good. It is almost platitudinous to declare that the army made a man of me and I hate to imagine how I would have emerged had I been left to my own random devices.
My efforts to forget seem to have been pretty successful, especially in the duration and sequence of events. How long, for example, was I on the Signals course back at Catterick? There are only a few clues to be gleaned from the old photographs, for I had carelessly omitted to record any dates on the back of them. My Lanark summer had progressed into autumn, evident in my snapshot of four squaddies on fatigues, sweeping up the fallen leaves. And the weather had become cold, too, as can be deduced from a picture of myself with my mate Bill Dumper, wearing greatcoats out on exercise with our wireless truck.
A further indication of how long I was at the camp - long enough, that is, to have been home at least once - is in the existence of some of my old jazz 78s, still with labels stuck on them, displaying my army number, name and unit. I returned from my leave with about a dozen of these cherished records, to be played over the loudspeakers in the big dining hall. This was a bitter-sweet pleasure for me, bringing Muggsy Spanier, Bix Beiderbecke and Co straight from home into the otherwise alien atmosphere of army life, a splash of bright and joyous colour on a harsh grey backcloth.
Over a period of what must have been several months I was turned into an OWL B3 - that is, Operator Wireless and Line (B3 being rated higher than B2, I seem to recall). This transmogrification was achieved mainly by the challenge of competition, plus - in my case in particular - my instinctive reaction to the sensitive understanding of the corporal who was our teacher. Unlike many another army corporal, he commanded respect in a firm but kindly manner, and he knew his job. As with the Bren gun, I became proficient with the Morse key without having to try very hard. To help us learn the Morse Code, the corporal offered us a few mnemonics, based on the rhythm of the dots and dashes. One was 'Here comes the Bride' - you can think of the bride as the Queen, he told us - thus arriving at dah dah dit dah for the letter 'Q'. Another one, which I have good cause never to forget, was 'Did-it 'urt cher?': Dit dit dah dit for the letter 'F', followed, inevitably, by 'Like 'ell it did' for 'L'.
With all that esoteric knowledge instilled into me it is no wonder that I retain to this day at least one clear memory of my time at Catterick Camp. Sitting in a musty barrack classroom with an endless ribbon of Morse racing through my head I used to experience the most exquisite technicolour images. They comprised scenes from my home life, that carefree teenage existence not so far behind me, when even a ride on my bike came flashing back as one of my happiest moments. Everything in those images was crystal clear; I could even smell the sweet tang of the smoke from our campfire in Broadwater Forest, or taste the salty soft roe of a herring, lovingly cooked by my mother for my tea. Whilst all this was going on I diligently wrote down the practice messages as they pipped and dashed their incessant natter from the Creed machine. The sounds entered by way of the headphones and appeared as neat, pencilled words on the pad in front of me, seemingly by-passing my brain which nevertheless handled all this without any effort on my part, inducing a state of trance in which I escaped from the dreary, homesick boredom of army life.
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