- Contributed by
- Fred Digby
- People in story:
- Fred Digby
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 July 2003
‘Gibbo’s result was the same, after his hearing we both agreed that the MO was already aware of our humiliation over the cells episode because it must have gone in a report somewhere and surely must have been talked about. We wondered when we found that no time was wasted in getting our passes and rail warrant almost within an hour of leaving the MO, that maybe someone had some explaining to do over the reason that we were employed in the prison.
We asked ourselves were they so in need of prison staff that they had secured us on the pretence of gunnery instruction? No gun had ever been produced, not one of any type nor was the fact ever mentioned, no classroom offered where we were supposed to teach. It was all very mysterious but we would never know what really happened.
It appeared that no unfavourable report followed either of us when we reported back to our major; all he said with a smile was “I thought I’d got rid of you two buggers”. From there on we settled back into the routine of depot life and thankful to do so after our spell at that prison. I lost track of ‘Gibbo’, except that I would see him in the Mess. I really had nothing to do as I was not ordered to take over a squad until I had been back almost two weeks.
Then once again I received one of those grapevine messages to the effect that there were some men of the 2nd Battalion Tank Regiment who were in the camp and asked that I go along to see them and I was told by my informant where to find them, they were some way off. But as I learned that they were not expected to be there for many days because they were off to where the Regiment was reforming I set out that same evening to see them. How great it was to meet up again with a dozen or so sergeants, my desert comrades who had just returned from Burma. Being together after three years when they had left me in hospital in Cairo it was like old times.
There was a lot of news to catch up with and so many stories to relate; they had never been able to use their tanks in Burma apparently because of the terrain and had marched hundreds of miles to reach Allied lines. They told me of men who didn’t survive which was upsetting. But in all it was an unforgettable meeting - a thoroughly enjoyable evening, I was so pleased that I had met up again with at least some of them; unfortunately I never had the opportunity to see them again.
We parted in the hall of the Mess and I was among the last to retrieve my hat, coat and gloves but my coat wasn’t there. There was just one coat remaining but it was not mine. It was hanging where mine had hung, the one that remained was what I thought to be that of a Polish cavalryman, long enough to fit a six-footer with purple and red flashes and a belt at the back. It was a filthy winter night with a good covering of snow on the ground so there was nothing for it than avail myself of what remained. It was a coat anyway and I didn’t intend to trudge back in just my battledress.
It reached to my ankles and dragged the snow as I slipped and stumbled my way back and it didn’t help that I had had a few drinks. Hoping that I would not be observed I was able to slip into my room unseen. At that time in my bemused state I had not paused to consider what the consequences of the loss of my greatcoat might amount to in the clear morning. Then all I wished to do was to sleep off the booze.
When morning came I remembered the coat and saw it hanging there; I had to face up to the fact that I was responsible for taking my squad on parade for Inspection and Roll Call. I would have liked to ask the Corporal to take it but I had no excuse for being absent. So I had to come to a decision taking into account Standing Orders were that “during the inclement weather greatcoats would be worn”. If I went without a coat I would have disobeyed that order but if I settled for the alternative and wore that coat I could be charged with being ‘improperly dressed’. If I appeared in that ridiculous garment at least I would be showing a lack of respect; either way or whatever I did, I knew I wasn’t going to win.
The Corporal came in and offered advice; he thought it best that I did not wear it, the lads when seeing me trying it on were well entertained and amused at my plight which didn’t alter the circumstances at all. Some pointed out that it was too ‘shivery cold’ to stand on parade without a coat, others wanted me to wear it just for the dare; what finally decided me to put it on was the bitter cold state of the morning, so among a lot of giggling troopers we got ‘fell in’.
It was indeed fortunate that our squad formed the rear rank of the parade and even ‘Gibbo’ who was formed up with his squad forward of me had not then learned of my predicament. I knew though that before very long he and everyone else would soon have knowledge of it.
Time seemed to stand still for me as I watched the Orderly Officer with the sergeant-major in tow slowly inspecting rank after rank as they worked their way to our position. Before they reached me they had seen me and both almost missed a step as they neared my front. I carried on and gave out the day’s duties, something like “two men sick, four cookhouse” and so on and ended with the normal “otherwise present and correct, sir”. Then as they came forward to inspect, the sergeant-major had no hesitation in saying “dismiss, sergeant. Squadron Office 9.00 hours”. With that I left the parade ground and the Corporal took over.
I can’t say that I enjoyed my breakfast because the incident had well and truly done its rounds, it was no doubt a cause for much merriment in the men’s Mess where they all thought it hilarious and all sorts of punishments were predicted for me. In our own Mess there was some some sympathy and understanding of my position. As I made my way after breakfast to the Squadron Office, still in that coat, quite a lot of comments were made while I considered how or in what way I would be made answerable for my misdemeanour.
I can’t remember if I was marched in before the Major but I thought when he first saw me in my foreign attire that he tried to suppress a smile but maybe it was only wishful thinking on my part. He asked me what was my excuse for dressing like a clown and making a mockery of morning parade.
He listened to my explanations, of my visit to my old comrades of the 2nd Battalion, of my dilemma and having only the choice of two evils. I must have told it well because he accepted my story and offered no word of admonition and I was dismissed. The sergeant-major ordered me to go along to the Quartermaster’s stores and exchange the offending article which I did, and signed for a new real British ‘warmer’. I realised that I had been treated leniently and was fortunate to have been before that particular officer and not answerable to someone more strict.
No other posting came my way but a sergeant I had talked to in the Mess informed me of an office job which was shortly to become vacant. I was not very interested in it at the time, in fact I didn’t think I had an aptitude for office work but he, sergeant Hamilton, told me that he thought I could do it and described it as a ‘doddle’. He showed me what it amounted to and urged me to apply for it. He himself was soon to be released on the grounds of age, service and medical reasons. When encouraging me to put in for the job he said I would be able to see out the remainder of my time there and would have a reasonable easy life too.
My reply to ‘Hammy’ was that I was waiting to be returned to the Regiment in Germany. At that he said something like “don’t be silly, no-one of your medical grade gets a posting of that sort, don’t you realise that you are downgraded. You are now B7”. I couldn’t believe it, but on checking with a Squadron Office clerk found it to be true and it had been so for six months; that surprised me as I considered myself reasonably fit - at least I had thought so when I chased those prisoners a month or so before. However if that was the case then I decided to do as ‘Hammy’ had suggested and apply for the job, I did so but not without some trepidation.
I was given permission to take over as soon as he had left. From then on after I had taken my squad on morning parade I worked with ‘Hammy’, where he showed what was entailed and sure enough I found that there was nothing to it. It was all to do with the drawing up of the daily manpower requirements and to detail their allocations for the following day. I would need to know the number of men required each day for cookhouse duties, Guards, Pickets, Escorts and any other further demands which were often made by the sergeant-major, such as area cleaning.
Either I would be made aware of these needs or I would myself make the enquiries which took me around the camp; the Guards and Pickets were formed automatically from the Duty Roster so that men usually knew when their turn for duty was due. When the lists were complete they were placed on the Squadron Notice Board.
‘Hammy’ left then to be demobbed and I became accustomed to the job. It was easy enough as he had said and I was really enjoying doing it. I hadn’t been doing the work for many weeks though when I was disrupted during part of the day and the reason became a topic in the Mess because there were some strange occurrences in process.
Why, we wondered, were a number of classrooms being set aside, complete with desks seeming to be made ready for some unspecified purpose. Firstly we had to attend lectures given by an officer of the Education Corps, mainly to do with courses which could be taken to prepare one for civilian life.
This involved about twenty of us sergeants; we all realised that the war in Europe was drawing to a close but there was still the war in the Far East so it was generally expected that the conflict could continue for another year or two. So why were we being offered courses then?
We then found ourselves more involved, for each day we were interviewed, questioned and examined; firstly questioned on our military history, then another day our medical history, all of which was already well documented. We saw the dentist and were medically examined, finally we sat before a psychiatrist who gave us puzzles to solve, wooden blocks with which to build shapes, words were fed to us and our replies had to follow with another word. Everything in each test was noted down.
Several days were spent playing those silly games. We wondered about the square peg and round hole situation; were they attempting to place us in postings which were suitable to our qualifications and ability which they deduced from their strange and stupid games.
In the opinion of those of us taking part in those antics the whole affair would have been laughable if the nonsense they were daily putting us through wasn’t so expensive and time-wasting. Our medical and military history was well documented for instance and there seemed to be no reason why we should have to relate it all to them, except perhaps that it was thought that they could furnish some illogical answers to their childish puzzles and games.
As we got more and more fed up with it each of us became less co-operative and made a hash of their puzzles and questions, giving incorrect and misleading answers. It gave them a few puzzles to sort out. On the other hand the debates and lectures were enjoyable and enlightening, what was it all in aid of, we asked ourselves, what kind of work were they preparing as many twenty sergeants for?
It must be something important, we argued, and all so secret, no-one had even hinted at its purpose. After a while we heard a whisper, a rumour circulated to the effect that we were not being prepared for a posting anywhere but after the testing was complete a select number would go forward to an assessment centre where it would be decided the percentage of pension to be awarded and a date given for discharge from service.
All that to me, and I believe the others too, was too good to be true, someone we thought was having us on, and yet it was quite feasible from what had been happening during the past few weeks. But it became a fact; it was absolutely true, I was one of those on the list to go and ‘Gibbo’ too. I believe; all of the others also followed in batches eventually.
We were destined for a medical centre at Morpeth in Northumberland and about six of us set off by train to Newcastle. My journey there was somewhat of a disaster because I made my way there by military ambulance having fallen down at Darlington station and found myself at Newcastle Victoria hospital rather than at a Release Centre.
What had occurred was that as the train stopped briefly I nipped off to get a newspaper and running back to reboard slipped over. From then on, until I came round in a hospital bed, I had not known what had happened; my battledress sleeve had been cut away and my arm, the one I damaged in 1941, was swollen from elbow to fingers and some fluid was drained away. I soon got over it and the arm was back to normal in a week or so.
We were visited by a Red Cross worker seeking information of anyone known to us on their many lists of missing persons. I had encountered this before when I was in hospital in Cairo in 1941; at that time the only name I recognised was that of my old friend Danny, and the information which I could offer then that the last time I saw him was at the Armoured Corps Reinforcement Base prior to the German breakthrough and France’s capitulation, but that fact only reinforced what news of him they had already gained.
But at this time in 1945 his name was still on the list and the more recent news of him was that he was aboard the Lancastria, and standing near a funnel when a bomb dropped so he was classed as ‘missing believed killed’. I was so sorry and very much surprised; sorry because Danny was another of those very close mates that I had lost and surprised too because I had always presumed that when the evacuation from Dunkirk and Calais had begun they would be among the first to get away. But since, having learned more of that terrible tragedy I find the date was the 17th June 1940 which was around ten days after the end of the evacuation a few days after myself, when I had believed that we were among the last to escape.
Apparently the Lancastria was anchored outside the port of Saint-Nazaire in the bay of Biscay, there were over 4,500 men, women and children lost when German bombers attacked and hit the liner; as it listed hundreds of would-be passengers leapt into the sea, many were picked up by small boats but there were that massive number who did not survive, Danny being one of them.
This was one of the greatest disasters at sea in history; it so shocked Winston Churchill that he banned publication of the news. After the war I worked with Danny’s brother, Sandy, and I was able to tell him of our times together, of how I agreed that being at Base Depot he had a safe job but such is the unpredictability of war that these terrible things occur.
While there in hospital the war in Europe was declared over, and the 8th May 1945 was pronounced VE-Day; so after almost six years of chaos, devastation and death, with many of our cities and Europe in ruins the Germans had finally been forced to surrender. In order that we walking patients could take part in the celebrations we were allowed out for a few hours and found the streets of Newcastle crowded with throngs of people who, as with the remainder of the country, were wildly making merry to celebrate the occasion.
There were street parties decorated with bunting and flags, groups were dancing in the streets, there was much drinking and such other festivities; everyone out to mark that long-awaited day. We, sporting our hospital Blues, were easily recognised and everywhere we walked we were mobbed. People all wanted our company and we were invited to join so many groups that it was difficult to refuse some invitations, there were invites into houses where we were plied with food and drink and urged to join their parties.
A warning had been given before being allowed out not to drink too much and of that I was particularly aware because I did not intend to ruin any chances I had of an early release once I had left hospital. The people there treated us like heroes, little did they know that of the four of us, I had had a small operation on my arm, one had been injured playing football, one had a hernia operation and I’m not sure what brought the other one to hospital because he had driven a ‘brass hat’ around the country for most of the war. We could hardly be classed as heroes, but on that great day the revellers would have accepted any serviceman as a hero then.
As servicemen though we did not forget at that memorable time that although the war in Europe had thankfully ended and been brought to a favourable conclusion, there were still thousands of our comrades fighting in the Far East. There were also thousands more suffering in captivity at the hands of those barbaric Japanese. Several of my friends died from the result of their violence and many still suffer today from the result of the punishment which they received. I can feel sympathy for those unfortunates and share with them their hatred against those who perpetrated those atrocities which in some cases might even be forgiven but to forget about them is not possible.
With VE-Day past, it was only to be expected that all servicemen and women would be contemplating their release from service and hoping that their group would be an early one; there were others who were more apprehensive about the possibility that they might be called on to serve out their time in the Far East to assist those fighting there and to hasten the ending of that war too.
I myself had no such fear because I was virtually certain that within a few days of being returned to the Release Centre I would be a civilian, demobbed with a pension. That certainty was further enhanced by some of the lads who were my visitors when they came in to tell me that they were on their way home and had come to say goodbye. They assured me that I would soon be following on and that I would receive a substantial pension due to the fact that I had a recurring wound which would count for a lot when the assessments were made.
Among those leaving was ‘Gibbo’: he came in on his way home to Rushden and said he would look me up in the British Arms in a week or so. I left hospital and on the Monday morning, at Morpeth I expected to be called before the brigadier but instead was issued with a leave pass for seven days which surprised me because I thought it strange that when only a few days from being demobbed I should be granted leave, and although I was well aware that it was the custom to receive sick leave after a spell in hospital I would well have waived the privilege under the circumstances.
However, a pass given at any time and for whatever reason was always acceptable; in any case I told myself that it would only delay my release date a little and when I returned to Morpeth it would just be a matter of collecting my papers.
I thoroughly enjoyed that leave, it was great to be able to tell Hilda, my family, friends and those in the pub and all and sundry of my early homecoming. At that time too Hilda had some wonderful good news to impart because she informed me that I was about to become a father; further, that she had rented a cottage which would be ready for me when I arrived home - at number 18 Baker Street in Irthlingborough. I felt so elated; so many things were happening, there seemed so much for us to look forward to, to be together as a family in our own home and with no more going away, no more of “pick up your kits”; it was all so unbelievable.
We went to Northampton to pass on the good news to them. Brother Ern was home at the same time, it was he in fact who brought me the telegram while I was Bain’s shop having my hair cut which instructed me to return to Morpeth immediately. I could not explain this sudden development, I couldn’t guess at the reason for it but knew that I would be made aware of it on my return.
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