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A Soldier Goes to War Part 4

by lofty_

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People in story: 
E. Rowland
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23 February 2004

Among the characters in our carriage was a six 6'3" tall, red headed Scotsman, a fisherman from the outer Hebrides who had more brawn than brain and an Irishman, Paddy Duff, who was a born practical joker and a most unforgettable character. There was also the tiniest soldier that I ever saw who spoke with such a broad Yorkshire accent that he needed his own interpreter and who answered to the name of 'Titch'. Much of the off duty time in this carriage was spent playing for half pennies the soldiers’ card game Brag, except for one of the occupants who spent most of his time compiling crossword puzzles for national newspapers and magazines.
There were one or two events at Porton that might be described as "occasions". One of the more memorable of these occasions was in connection with the destruction of material on the range. Material that was not in any condition to be collected yet had to be made safe. It was therefore put together in small heaps and then blown up. This task, on a number of occasions, fell to a chap and myself from the depot battery, whom we will call Smith, who had the necessary certificate to handle explosives. Smith was one of those unforgettable characters who had served time in India for much of his time and knew all the old soldier's tricks. He was a cheerful character who lived with his wife in married quarters and was reputed to be suffering from a mental condition known to those who had served in India as 'Doolally tap'. Loosely translated this meant he had a screw loose, but Smith was a long way from that. Wanting a quiet and undisturbed life he had convinced most of his officers that he was indeed suffering from a mild touch of this complaint.
Blowing up the surplus material was a Sunday morning job that carried with it some extra cash. We had, on this particular occasion, made three nice piles of ammunition, which were to be exploded independently. Having checked the charges we slipped into a slit trench to explode the first. I was just about to operate the detonator when Smith said "Hang on a wire has come loose", and he nipped over the top of the trench, knelt down for a minute and then dashed back. Before I turned the handle of the detonator he said "Better get your head down a bit lower, I have a feeling about this one". I fired the charge and there was a colossal bang. When our ears stopped ringing and we peeped over the top of the trench we discovered the three piles had gone off together. An ambulance arrived and we were taken to the medical unit for a check up and on the way saw how much damage we had done to the outskirts of the camp. The result of this adventure was a Board of Enquiry with evidence given by a very distinguished Brigadier. He was an explosive expert who assured the enquiry that "The whole thing was a result of unstable explosives going off together through wave transmission when the charge was fired". He described it as an interesting example of a phenomena known as 'sympathetic detonation' and declared it was not our fault at all. Walking away from the enquiry Smith turned to me and said "Sympathetic detonation be blowed”, or similar such words, "I wired the piles together when I slipped out of the trench!" I still wonder whether Smith really did have perhaps a little bit more than a touch of Doolally tap!
Smith also kept pigeons, about sixty in all, and had somehow managed to convince the army to feed them. It was convenient for him that lorries from the camp made journeys all over the country and they frequently carried a basket of Smith’s pigeons with the driver having been given instructions where they were to be released. Pigeon races were popular and despite, shortages the first prize always turned out to be a bottle of whisky. Which for some strange reason a senior officer always won. This assured a lively demand for tickets, a good return for Smith and a guarantee that the pigeons’ rations would never be cut.
Like all military units everybody had to do a turn of guard duty. but like everything else Porton’s guard was different and for me one that led to a rewarding result. The headquarters of the camp was a large office block with a reception desk in the main entrance. At the block was closed and a guard mounted inside the building. The sentry sat on a comfortable armchair behind the reception desk while his comrades drank tea or slept until their turn came to take over this onerous task. The headquarters block housed the telephone exchange and its ATS telephone operators and chatting with them while on duty helped to ease the long nights. One of these telephone operators was an attractive young London girl by the name of Reynolds, whose first name was Doris but known as Renny to her mates. Doris and I got on extremely well, to the envy of all I knew as well to some of those in the higher hierarchy of the camp, and in a short time we were courting. We had both acquired bicycles and most of our courting was done in the beautiful countryside and villages of Wiltshire surrounding the Camp
Porton was always receiving things to blow up or to experiment on and this included on one occasion a delivery of rather battered three ton lorries that the army had withdrawn from service and which were to be used as targets on the range. From this consignment we picked a lorry that looked in better condition than the rest and, with the support of Bubbly, we were able to persuade the mechanics in the transport section to service its engine. From then on we were independent of the transport pool and used the lorry as our personal transport and it became well known as belonging to those scruffy soldiers in Wellington boots who daily climbed into it and disappeared towards the range, or delivered coal to the ATS and married quarters in return for copious cups of tea, or the occasional bacon butty from the ATS duty cook, a good looking, dizzy blond.
For some time there had been rumours that we were to have our own garrison theatre and I found myself co-opted on to a camp entertainment committee that was chaired by the camp commandant and with the adjutant as its secretary. By this time life had taught me some excellent lessons about my fellow human beings; one being that people are not always what they appear on the surface and that frequently those who appear most confident are putting up a front to a hide character fault. I had began to develop the knack, which was to serve me well in later life, of making instant judgements on peoples’ characters which seldom let me down, I was also acutely aware that many people with an ability or a talent often needed a prod to get them going and people like me to do the prodding.
My other talent that was also developing was to grasp quickly the fundamentals of a problem without being distracted by irrelevant details, in other words to look at the tree without being distracted by the forest. I feel, in retrospect, that these talents were given to me to offset the problems that my dyslexia had produced within me, including feelings of inferiority and shame.
Serving on the entertainment committee gave me the opportunity to put my talents into practice. It was the first time that I had ever been in an army situation where free discussion took place, irrespective of rank, and it was quite clear to me from the outset that the committee had very little idea how to go about their task. My suggestion that we should start a camp newspaper was quickly accepted and I was elected without more ado as its editor and given the facilities to go ahead and produce the first copy. There were plenty of people with talent on the camp, all I had to do was find and encourage them to produce some copy. Within a short time things began to happen. Apart from our crossword compiler producing his first puzzle, we also had the first copy of what was to become a popular series, which were articles that were in fact descriptions of camp life written in biblical language and produced by a member of our small group. I would find the subject, rough out a story and our writer would do the rest. I recall one of the first stories I wrote which concerned the last train from Salisbury to Porton on a Saturday night. This offered plenty of scope! The day came when the last stencils were cut and our newspaper was launched. We had also put in a few fillers to round it off, one was about moustaches and it suggested that some of those around the camp did not really exist, they were just pencilled on each morning. The reaction surprised us, a number of men came round to our railway hut threatening to knock my block off! It was gratifying to learn that our efforts were at least being read.
The new garrison theatre, a multi-purpose hall with a foyer and a booking office, was soon a reality, but with it came a problem resulting from the tradition of the forces that officers sat in the front row of any form of entertainment and the senior warrant and non commissioned officers, including the sergeants in the rows directly behind, with the other ranks filling up the rest of the hall. This was acceptable in a normal situation but at Porton many of the officers and non commissioned officers, who lived in married quarters, brought their wives and families with them. This situation meant that most of the seats in the front of the hall were taken giving the rest of us poor choice. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that there was at Porton quite a number of officers and warrant officers from all the three forces living in the officer's and sergeants messes who were not part of the military units but attached to the research station itself and when any form of entertainment was put on these people came out of the woodwork, like mice to the cheese, to fill up the best seats. Something had to be done about this but what and by whom?
I had now got the measure of the entertainment committee and when the question of holding dances on a regular basis, to ensure the full use of the theatre was discussed, I made the suggestion that we should also try something different, perhaps an occasional dance on a night club basis. For instance, set tables around a dance floor, restrict the sale of tickets to the number of tables and make these tables bookable from a booking plan held at the theatre. The tickets would be sold on a first come first served basis. The plan was accepted and there were a number of willing people to help in the organisation to make the first evening a success and the first of a number of such nights.
Shortly after our first night club the classical pianist, Dame Myra Hess came to play for us. Although normally, in an army camp a classical pianist would not draw a big audience, Porton was crowded with scientists, both civil and military and there were many music lovers who wanted to hear this celebrity perform. The proposed performance was discussed by the entertainment committee and the other ranks point of view on the front seats situation was put forward. It was agreed that this event was also to be on a first come first served basis, provision of course being made for the most senior officers to get reserved. seats. Apart from the front row the audience was completely mixed, the evening was also a success and at least at Porton set the pattern for the future and fair play for the troops.
The area around Salisbury was a training area for the 6th Airborne Division. Paratroopers of Arnhem fame, who were often to be seen parachuting by the hundreds down onto the plain. By the middle of 1944 it was clear something big was about to happen and there was much talk of an invasion of France. All the lanes and byways for many miles around the camp were packed with military vehicles, huge piles of ammunition and food could be seen covered with camouflage nets and all leave had been stopped.
Just before dusk one evening Doris and I were walking through camp when the air was filled with the sound of hundreds of airplanes and looking up we saw to our amazement that all the aircraft, most of them four engined bombers of all descriptions, had their lights on and were pulling gliders. Everybody in the camp was climbing to vantage points; Doris and I to the crowded roof of a hut that had a clear view for miles around. We sat mesmerised as hour after hour we watched this air armada, with lights blazing, heading towards the coast and presumably France. It was an emotional and awe-inspiring occasion, which those who saw it could never forget.

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