- Contributed by
- DOUGLAS ROTHERY
- People in story:
- Douglas Rothery
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 March 2004
Chapter I – Asylum Seekers
It was 1938, world events were far from our minds as my school chum Arthur Baker and I discussed our future careers, other than the 8 to 5 monotony of car production.
How well I remember the final decision to join the army as we trudged to the recruiting office in St. Giles Oxford, with no specific regiment in mind but relying on the gentle persuasive scarlet tuniced gentleman with three stripes on his sleeve. He quickly eyed us up and down and no doubt using himself as a measuring stick, must have convinced himself that we were promising material, because he quickly got down to explaining the shorter term of service, namely 4 years with the Colours and 8 years on the reserve in the ‘Guards’ to that of the other regiments. This he stated was quite an advantage if on completion you wished to join the Police, etc., etc. He then proceeded to explain about the Guard’s depot at Caterham a short distance from Croydon, it’s beautifully kept gardens and precision kept lawns and confirmed this sought after residence by showing us postcards which happened to be conveniently at hand.
We eventually succumbed to his persuasion and signed on the dotted line and with my head in a whirl, were not to hear anymore for a week or so, when we would be recalled to see the doctor.
It wasn’t long after this on 3 February 1938 I received a buff envelope containing a railway warrant to Croydon. I was extremely downhearted on leaving home but didn’t wish to show it, Dad said that he wouldn’t come to the station to see me off as he never wished anyone to do so whenever he was leaving during the 1914-18 fiasco, anyway that was how I would have wanted it. My mother was as placid as always as I kissed her farewell, she rarely expressed or showed her emotions. Off I went with my two eldest brothers as escort calling upon the other potential recruit as we joined up with the rest of the gang to have a farewell drink together in one of our regular haunts, the Wheatsheaf off the Highstreet.. We had our usual game of darts in which I didn’t have the slightest interest, the beer was practically choking me as I tried to participate in the enthusiasm ( not I hope by them because we were leaving) although Arthur Baker was relishing the celebrations or perhaps that was because someone else was paying? At last it was time to go and I despondently trooped along with the others to the railway station where they were to bid us a fond ‘au revoir’. We hardly spoke a word on the journey and were still in no mood for talking as we arrived outside the guard's depot at Caterham, a large stone Victorian complex, (‘Oh why did I do it? If only I could turn back’).
A sentry was standing at the gate motionless, his feet apart his rifle pushed out in front of him. He wore a dark blue cap with a wide red band encircling it, the shiny black peak practically touching the end of his nose, but it didn’t conceal his mesmerised stare (still suffering perhaps)! He had a white buff belt around the waist of his long slate blue overcoat, which reached well below the knee revealing a pair of khaki puttees and what looked like a pair of patent leather boots. I thought to myself ‘ I will never be able to do this’ - I didn’t have to think anymore.
We went into the Guardroom and handed over the paperwork, to apparently the Sergeant of the Guard and he came out with what turned out to be the usual cliché at these introductions. ‘You’ve come to the wrong gate, you should have gone next door’. Evidently next door was an asylum!
Perhaps we were at the wrong gate and matey standing on sentry at this gate was an inmate believing himself to be Napoleon.
It didn’t take long to confirm my doubts because the next minute the door flew open and in shot another ‘Napoleon’ with the peak of his cap touching the end of his nose with a cane under his arm. He turned out to be the Picket sentry for the day and his duty was to escort us to the reception room. With a brisk word of command from the Sergeant he turned about and signalled us to follow him. Off he went swinging his arms shoulder high and stepping out at a fair old rate, leaving us yobbos soon trailing behind. Eventually, when he noticed that we were someway behind, he came back and asked us to get a move on otherwise he would be in trouble for being idle, after all he, like the sentry, was only a recruit.
It was quite some distance from the Guardroom and we had to pass a vast area of tarmac on the way, which I was soon to learn was the barrack square.
On reaching the reception room, I was to encounter the definition of ‘Bull’ in all it’s glory, everything was spotless, the floor was so highly polished we were a bit wary of walking on it. We were given a large sheet of brown paper to wrap up our civilian clothes to post home, but I nearly found an alternative use for mine because when I was about to go up the stairs to a room to which we were directed, I naturally placed my hand on the banister, I soon found out who was responsible for the high gloss.
‘Take your bloody hands off that banister, there is an inspection in the morning’.
This command was rasped out from a moustachioed moron at the top of his voice like a burst from a machine-gun in a brogue you could cut with a knife. To the initiated it was obvious by his cap badge and the green band around the cap that he was an Irish Guardsman, I also noted during my brief encounter, that he had three or four stripes in reverse order to that of a Sergeant on the end of his sleeve. These I learnt later were service stripes, so he could have been serving before I was born. Also that evening, I was told that he along with the many employed Guardsmen at the depot were to be greeted with the title of ‘Trained Soldier’ when spoken to by a recruit, and to stand to attention whilst doing so, until given the command to dismiss, whence you would turn to your right and briskly march away. I was learning fast!
After receiving underclothing, including ‘Long Johns’, we were issued with a ridiculously oversized, collarless, chocolate coloured canvas suit, loose regimental buttons including split rings for the use of which we then set about fitting, so that we could parcel up and send home our last souvenir of ‘civvy street’.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night, not only thinking of my lost freedom but the bed was anything but Slumberland. The sash windows were opened wide which being the beginning of February wasn’t at all welcome, I was slowly freezing to death, it was the first time I had ever worn Long Johns or ever had cause to.
The depot clock was quite close and to ensure that we didn’t fall into unconsciousness, I believe it struck the quarter of every hour. ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ It wasn’t long before I was to find out. At the first note of a bugle call all hell broke loose, as (someone in authority no doubt) started screaming at us to get out of bed, and to emphasise this command, was at the same time slamming the metal locker doors situated over one of the beds. We didn’t need this robust encouragement but it certainly gave our cold aching limbs a jump start.
After breakfast we were shown how to manipulate this 19th century iron maiden with its 3 two foot square horse-haired filled biscuit type mattresses, cylindrical horse-hair filled pillow, two sheets and three blankets into what was known as ‘Armchair fashion’.
The next few days were taken up by inoculations and dental examinations which resulted in having to have a couple of teeth filled, and after seeing some of the others I was glad I didn’t have to have any extractions!
Off to the stores to collect the rest of our equipment where each item was placed into the centre of what was known as a ‘U’ blanket, ( Utility) this could be used - we were informed - to bury you in if you were unfortunate enough in action to ‘Catch a Packet’. So with this happy thought in mind the nine of us, each with our well filled shroud and an oily and well greased rifle slung across our shoulders, set off to our new quarters situated on the top floor of York block.
The room was already partially occupied by a squad nearing the completion of their training, which I can assure you didn’t do much to boost our morale. We had no designated instructor or Trained Soldier at this stage, but were guided to empty beds at the far end of the room. The rest of the occupants were at that moment apparently otherwise engaged, and to prove it, the next moment the door flew open and in rushed a squad of scalped turkey cocks, flushed no doubt from their previous activities. They scrambled out of their present garb into PT kit and away again, with encouragement from a voice in the background to the effect that they ‘Get a bloody move on’ including a few other expletives to boot.
We carried on tidying up and trying to disentangle our 1914 vintage webbing, when once again in rushed these loyal volunteers who were now changing into faded chocolate canvas suits. Then a bugle call sounded and they grabbed their eating utensils and were away again. We were looking on in amazement when someone suggested that if we didn’t want to starve to death we should do likewise.
Taking the hint we nonchalantly followed someway behind until we were within sight of the messroom, where in the doorway was framed a large bulbous Corporal whom we later learnt was the Mess Corporal known locally as Chesty Reed who on spotting us, let out a roar which was soon interpreted as ‘DOUBLE’. We didn’t argue!
All had their heads down as we entered and were tucking in. 'This can’t be bad' I thought, it looked very appetising. A Trained Soldier approached and nominated two volunteers to fetch our portions from the serving hatch, where the food was presented in large tin trays then placed in front of the Trained Soldier who then proceeded to apportion it out onto the pile of plates in front of him which were then passed along the table.
I must say he seemed quite generous with the portions and could have been more generous on the other plates if I had sampled mine beforehand. The liberal portion of unspecified meat and cabbage with a slice of so called Yorkshire pudding, did not in any way resemble mum’s Sunday roast, although I must admit I did recognise the potatoes as these could not be so easily sabotaged. The sweet was I believe sultana pudding swamped with a generous dollop of what looked like very appetising custard, the colour of such, I am afraid was very deceiving. Poured from a large galvanised conical bucket, it left a very strong taste of galvanise and having the disadvantage of a sweet tooth, one spoonful of sugar per bucket wasn’t at all suffice to my taste buds. The tea also served from a galvanised bucket with its’ equally ungenerous sweetener, was equally revolting. An officer entered surrounded by his cohorts and one of them shouted out a command, whereby all heads shot up out of their troughs, then a rather cultured weak voice said ‘Eny compleents’ (not a sound) then a louder voice shouted ‘CARRY ON’. I must say it wasn’t long before we wouldn’t be getting enough of what would eventually turn out to be a very acceptable cuisine.
Whilst awaiting to get the required number of 21 recruits to form a squad, we were being mentally tortured by the intermittent scurrying in and out by our semi trained squad, the numerous bugle calls, the continuous shouting of recruits and their tormentors whilst marching up and down in double quick time on the square adjacent to our block.
Eventually, we had the humiliation of having to visit the barbers shop for the skin-head treatment, (all in the cause of personal hygiene) which in the future, when necessary would be short back and sides. But it did cause a bit of amusement amongst us as each returned.
By this time I was getting thoroughly dispirited which I was to reveal in my first message home on a postcard similar to the one shown to me in the recruiting office. The message read to the effect that my hair had been cut very short, and I didn’t like it much here. I can assure you that this was a gross understatement. During this period of reflection and self-pity we had the menial task, amongst others, of sewing double buttons on all four pairs of trousers, braces being the only means of support, ensuring that we were never to be caught with our pants down! (Belts were not allowed).
New members were gradually swelling our ranks until at last we reached the acquired number to form a squad but were soon to suffer another setback when one of them disappeared, and coincidentally so did the civilian suit of our resident Trained Soldier.
At last we have got a squad instructor, a Corporal Cox, extremely smart and a disciplinarian with a twinkle in his eye which conveyed to me a sense of humour or perhaps it was because he had only 12 weeks to go before he would be leaving to join the Nottinghamshire police. Our Trained Soldier guardsman Milford seemed a more placid individual, but would no doubt ensure that the code of discipline and responsibility entrusted in him would be maintained throughout our training. Our delighted and sympathetic (now trained) bedfellows had at last flown their nests to join their respective battalions, so we were to take over their roost.
Our equipment had now been stencilled or punched with our own personal army numbers, so this was it, no going back, mum had sold the pig, so get your head down and start soldiering.
In my first week I had to replenish my toothpaste and soap from the N.A.A.F.I which left me just enough - thank goodness, to invest in some shining kit, (Blanco, Bluebell, Kiwi and a duster). So with the bed made down and then covered with the ground sheet, I was ready for what was known as ‘Shining Parade’ which took place each evening except Sundays, from 7pm to 9pm. During this period there would be no talking or smoking, and if I wished to go to the toilet or replenish water for blancoing etc., I would have to seek permission from the Trained Soldier whose bed was situated in the far corner of the room, unlike the squad instructor who had a room of his own adjacent to the barrack room. The procedure being that I would have to march smartly and briskly up to the Trained Soldier, halt, then request ‘Permission to leave the room, Trained Soldier please’? If granted, turn about and equally briskly march out. On completion of the ablution, the same ritual but ask ‘Permission to fall in Trained soldier please’? If all this was to his satisfaction you would return back to your shining, otherwise you could be marching up and down the barrack room - to coin a phrase - T.F.O. (Till further orders) an expression I would be only too familiar with in later service.
During this period, we did have a short break, whereby if we were flush enough and/or quick enough to get to the N.A.A.F.I. we might enjoy the luxury of a 'wad' (cake), but at this stage of training I didn’t dare risk so bold a move, so would carry on shining, trying to create an 'eager to learn' impression.
From 9pm to lights out was our own time, which gave us a chance not only to get to know the other recruits in our squad, but also the opportunity to write home.
Being winter we had a fire in the room from 7pm to lights out, the only advantage being that it gave us the opportunity of a covert operation after shining parade, to remove the dimples from our heavy dubbined boots by heating a spoon handle in the fire to burn off the dimples, but before this, we would have been called by the Trained Soldier in numerical order to double to the wash-house to wash hands and feet, double back and stand on the end of our beds to have them inspected by the squad instructor.
Next morning before the drummer had finished the first of about four Reveille calls, we would be scrambling for the few cold taps to scrape away at the bum fluff that was just beginning to sprout. The Corporal was already in the room immaculately dressed in khaki uniform, service dress cap with red band around it and shiny peak, a buff belt with its’ bayonet in its’ scabbard, his puttees all evenly gapped with boots shining like a mirror and carrying a cane. He started to lend his voice as we endeavoured to carry out his instructions, for what was known as Breakfast Parade which apparently takes place every morning approx: 1/2 an hour after Reveille and could entail the displaying or wearing specified pieces of equipment for inspection or alternatively Physical Training or again as was to be our experience to go Blanket Shaking.
Having grabbed our blankets, and after slipping and sliding down the stone stairway in our newly studded boots, into a dark winter morn to the edge of the square, we proceeded by working in pairs to shake each others' blankets. Parade over, we race back (no running in the barrack rooms) make up our beds (armchair fashion) then a bugle call sounded which my stomach recognised, but the flesh being weak., has not as yet been fully climatised to rubber fried eggs , and the tea! Oh for one out of the pot.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.