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Unfit to Hold a Rifle

by Harold Pollins

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Harold Pollins
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Harold Pollins
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12 December 2003

Unfit to hold a rifle

By Harold Pollins

Late in 1944, as a medically-downgraded infantryman, I was posted to a unit as a company clerk in Yorkshire. It was part of a scheme to train as infantry men who had been in other units, such as the RASC. The core of the training unit was composed of part of a battalion which had been a Territorial one, had been in France in 1939-40, at Alamein, in Sicily, Italy and Normandy. The trainees were in the RASC and had been brought back from France. I was told what to do by the CSM and more or less left to my own devices. We were in Nissen huts in a place called Duncombe Park, near the village of Helmsley. It was a large camp and had been occupied by Canadian troops before they had gone to France. We found that the large house at the top of the hill was in fact a girls’ boarding school - strange that it should still be there, surrounded by thousands of troops. I think the schoolgirls were safe although the resident staff were said to have had a good time with the soldiers. As a company clerk I slept at the back of the Nissen hut the front of which acted as the company office, the back part being a company store. It was my job, inter alia, to light the stove in the morning. I wasn’t very good at that and was quite worried about it, particularly as it was a very severe winter. One night I woke up and started to light the fire. I got it going successfully for once, assisted by the greasy coverings of some rifles in the store. Suddenly the door opened. A soldier entered. He was on guard duty and he asked me what I was doing. I told him. ‘It’s three o’clock in the morning.’ A pity that I had to watch the fire die down.
The RASC men were trained and in about March they were sent abroad., just in time for the crossing of the Rhine and the last phase of the war. One of them, who was not sent and stayed behind, kept in touch with some of them and reported that some were killed in action. That group were then succeeded by men of the Pioneer Corps who had similarly returned from France to retrain as infantry. But the war in Europe ended and their services were not needed. Eventually the unit closed and the men in it dispersed.
After the war I was eventually demobbed, returned to university, got my degree and started a teachers’ training course. One of the lecturers in the latter was a psychologist who had been greatly involved in wartime Personnel Selection whereby new recruits were given various tests, of intelligence and aptitude, and then, supposedly, allocated to the appropriate corps and regiments. He had written a book and in it he explained what he regarded as one of the most successful episodes in his army careers. He recounted how, before D-Day, all those in 21 Army Group (the invasion Army) had been given a few tests, their results displayed on Findex cards. These were cards with holes surrounding the perimeter and the appropriate hole was cut so that when a needle was placed in a bunch of cards, to sort out a particular category, the relevant cards would fall away and so the men would be selected. The book mentioned that one of the successes in the work was the selection by this method of men from France to retrain as infantry. He mentioned the Pioneer Corps men as an example.
When I read that I recalled the summer of 1945 when I was a company clerk in Helmsley. After the war a letter came from HQ Northern Command containing a statement to the effect that 1,000 Pioneer Corps men had been transferred to the Command to train as infantrymen and it had been found that all, or most, or some of them were not medical category A1 but (if I remember correctly) AX1.
That meant nothing to us until someone looked it up. AX1, or whatever it was, meant something like ‘psychologically incapable of holding or using a rifle.’ I often wanted to tell the psychology professor who had written the book about his supposed great success. But I never got round to it.

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