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- People in story:
- Albert 'Jack' Johnson
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- Contributed on:
- 03 September 2004
This is an excerpt from my father’s memoirs, perhaps a little different from the norm. His view was that he, like Churchill, could see that Hitler had to be stopped in 1936. Chamberlain had allowed Hitler to get away with his conquests in the vain hope that Britain could avoid involvement, which only exacerbated the predictable result. Though patriotically inclined, Jack Johnson was not prepared to risk his life trying to put right what the politicians had brought about by their neglect.
It was 1943 and I was thirty-nine, and the prospect of being uprooted and away from my wife and kids was a bleak one, particularly in the army, but I accepted that I would have to put up with it. I was a little concerned as to how Trix (my wife) would be able to afford to live. The firm for which I worked did not make good any loss in wages which conscripts suffered.
To establish the allowance my wife would receive from the Government, I had to advise an official in Chislehurst of all my particulars. In my naivety, I assumed I would get a fair deal and that the allowance would be sufficient. I was plied with questions while the official filled in a form. It seemed that certain allowance scales had been laid down, and it soon became clear that they would be kept to a minimum. What really infuriated me was the attitude to repayments to the building society which had financed my house purchase.
I was told, “Of course you won’t have to make any capital repayments while in the army, just the interest. You have every protection from the Government as far as your property is concerned.” Nice words, but I could see a big snag.
“But I want to keep the full payment going,” I replied, but was told, “That’s up to you but the allowance will only be for the interest.”
I tackled him again. “A fellow I know who was called up a while ago is renting a house for 22 shillings a week, and I happen to know that his wife’s allowance is for the full amount.”
“Well, that’s different, rent has nothing to do with buying a house.”
“So, if I’m some other recruit’s landlord I’ll get 25 shillings, but if I’m my own landlord I only get half, and I have to pay interest on an extended loan. I’m going to be well out of pocket after a few years in the army.”
The reply was curt, and final. “I’m sorry, but that’s the position and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
I decided right then that I was going to do something about it. Somehow I had to get out of the army. Not easy in the middle of a war, but my mind was already working on it, and I was determined.
I was sent to Lanark in Scotland. Policy was to base recruits as far as possible from home to avoid any “conflict of interest”. Training was square-bashing, athletics, lectures etc. In the 100-yard sprint I took about 20 seconds to ensure that I was well and truly last. No-one seemed to notice. Then there was a mile run of four laps round a circular track. I started off with the others but soon slowed to a trot, little more than walking pace. The keen types had gone round and caught up on their second lap before I’d completed half the first. By now the runners were spread all round the track and by the time I’d completed one lap the winners came in so I sat down with them. Again, no-one seemed to notice.
The army was very concerned about religious affiliation. This was noted on the soldier’s identity disc so the correct last rites could be administered in the event of his death. I was badgered about this by the medical orderly and several other NCOs, but the answer was always the same - none. They finally got the chaplain on to me. He tried very hard but had to give up eventually.
There were intelligence tests in which items which had been dismantled had to be re-assembled, and also diagrams and patterns which had to be put together in some sort of correlation. I tried very hard to do these things incorrectly, but some were almost impossible to get wrong. Then the Personnel Selection Officer would interview us individually with the test results. He didn’t spend much time with me. The Army slogan was “a square peg in a square hole”, which was designed to convey the impression that you were posted to a duty most suited to your talents and qualifications. Logical enough, but if there were lots of square holes and lots of round pegs you only needed half a brain cell to work out that the pegs would be cut to suit the holes and not the other way round.
I believe the odd expletive has its place in the language, but the filthy speech employed by the NCOs was in a another league entirely. Seldom would a sentence be completed without some sexual activity, perversion, or genitalia being included. The exceptions were largely compensated for by reference to legitimacy. One young rookie was so upset that he complained to the chaplain about it, which resulted in all recruits being admonished by the CO who said there was far too much bad language being used on the base, and that we’d better stop it!
There was an occasion when a (reputedly) Liberal politician addressed the recruits, speaking on a number of quite interesting and varied topics, and at the end asked for questions. One young recruit asked why an 18-year-old was considered old enough to risk his life for his country but too young to vote. The politician then said that time was short and he would answer next week. When the time came the soldier was requested to repeat the question (as though that were necessary for it to be answered) but though he was in the hall he did not do so. We all knew he had been threatened with a fate worse than death by the CO if he responded. The question remained unanswered.
I was the odd man out in my outfit. This was partly because I didn’t want to get into too many confidences with my colleagues, although they were decent enough fellows, but also because I had a different agenda. I’d worked out the army system and was not afraid of intimidation, though I had to be cautious in what I did.
There was the assault course, trenches, sandbags, dummies, sundry obstacles and at the end a 20ft high fence which had to be scaled. There were others, but I didn’t see them as I didn’t get beyond the first. I slid into the trench, stuck my bayonet into the dummy but then found I couldn’t climb out while holding my rifle so I left it in the trench. But then I needed it to stick into the next dummy so I slid back and picked it up, threw it over the top of the trench and climbed out again. The officer told me he didn’t think I’d done very well, and ordered me to go back and start again. I went back, trotted toward the first trench and tripped over nothing, letting go of my rifle as my tin hat fell off. By now the keen types had finished the course and were returning. After lying winded on the grass for a while, I sat up and cradled my head in my hands, saying that a migraine had struck. The officer tried blustering, with little result, and after a while he walked away. I kept up this campaign throughout the six weeks of training, my only lapse being on the rifle range where I put five shots into the bull before I realised what I’d done. The sixth and all subsequent ones went very wide.
After the six weeks, I was posted to the army Pay Corps in Leicester, billeted in a private house with five other soldiers. But I was now entitled to 48 hours leave, so I took the earliest train to London on a Friday afternoon to spend a lovely weekend with my wife and kids. On returning to Leicester I took some civilian clothes, as did most of my colleagues. The offices closed at midday on a Saturday, so it was possible to go home for the rest of the weekend even without a pass, providing I was out of uniform and thus not liable to being checked by the Military Police. There were three other Londoners stationed at the Leicester Pay Corps; however, there were also Pay Corps depots in Marylebone and Foots Cray. One of the others said to me, “Foots Cray would suit you alright, but then you can forget any ideas about being stationed near your home. Last thing the army would do.”
After seven weeks in the army, I had already had to spend ten pounds of my hard-won savings to augment the pittance which Trix, who was by no means extravagant, received. It was simply not enough to make ends meet. The nest-egg we were trying to build up was being eroded. But the possibility of getting transferred to Foots Cray did intrigue me, so I set about finding a way to achieve this. It would not affect my main objective, but it would be nice to be home if I could swing it.
It’s been said that the harder one works, the luckier one gets, but sheer luck still plays a part in the affairs of mankind. I was chatting to one of the sergeants one day and I told him my home was in Sidcup. It emerged that his sister who lived in Leicester was married to a man who’d been posted to the Foots Cray Pay Corps, and would dearly love to be transferred to Leicester. But, said the sergeant, this was impossible unless there were special circumstances.
My ears pricked up. “And what might they be?” I asked.
“Well, I believe a transfer on compassionate grounds can be arranged if they can exchange him for a man with similar problems.”
I obtained his address, and wrote a letter asking him to be at home on the following Sunday morning. He was there, and I put to him the scheme I’d worked out, telling him exactly what he should do. The next day I handed a letter to a welfare officer in which I requested a transfer on compassionate grounds. I hoped my Foots Cray counterpart was doing likewise. For over a week nothing happened, then out of the blue the welfare officer told me I was to be transferred to Foots Cray the following week. Aside from the obvious pleasure in getting transferred home, there was the added satisfaction of achieving what my colleagues had told me was impossible. The announcement was greeted with incredulity, then they all wanted to know how I’d swung it. I just said, “Sorry, you’ll have to work it out for yourselves.”
At Foots Cray, the officer in charge was a pleasant fellow and I would have been happy to work under him in civilian life. But this was the army. Now, Trix was a normally healthy girl, but did suffer from migraines, so I knew the symptoms and also that there wasn’t any effective cure. I began to get more frequent and more severe attacks, and was sent to the MO. I didn’t go of my own accord, having told the CO that there was nothing a doctor could do for me. Besides, if one refers oneself to the MO there is always the possibility one could be considered a malingerer, while if sent by an officer this is less likely. I was given some tablets. I didn’t take them. The attacks got worse.
Night guard duty was from 6pm till 8am, two hours on and four off. There were a few hundred men at the Pay Corps offices, so one’s name didn’t come up all that often. Between watches one had to try to sleep, fully clothed, on a thin, hard mattress, and it often seemed as though I’d just got to sleep when I was vigorously shaken awake for the next spell of guard duty. There were two strategic points, at the front gates where there was a sentry box and at the rear where there was a slit trench. Of the two I preferred the trench, as it was easier to doze there than standing up in the sentry box. Guards were issued with a rifle with bayonet, but no ammunition was provided. I assume that this was considered too dangerous. One sergeant-major had made it his particular mission to ensure that the Pay Corps offices were secure from the invasion, which he still thought was inevitable in late 1943. Inspecting the night guard once when I was on duty, he pointed out the very place the enemy paratroopers would drop when attacking the building. I didn’t bother to ask him what chance a lone guard with a bayonet and no ammunition would have against determined German paras.
I was by now getting to the stage of doing something desperate, even if it landed me in the “glasshouse”. Imagine if you will fifteen men locked up together at night, in a poorly-ventilated room with only one pail for sanitation purposes. A pee was acceptable, but just drop a heavy and the rest of them would beat the crap out of you! There was also solitary confinement. Years later I met a man who‚d been through it all. It was just a question of will power, he told me. He’d eventually been sent back to his unit and discharged.
D-day came and went, I was still in the army, and V1s were falling on London. I was concerned for Trix and the kids, so I arranged for them to stay with her sister in Manchester. No sooner had I done that than I was told by my CO that I was to be transferred to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. I was to undergo six weeks training at Saltburn in Yorkshire, which involved lectures on logistics among other things. After two weeks we were required to write an interim examination, and the sheet I handed back was completely blank. I was taken to task about this, but said that I couldn’t concentrate on the lectures due to migraine attacks. I was subjected to the usual bluster and threats, but I just shrugged my shoulders and said only migraine sufferers knew what it was like. By now I was almost past caring. I intended to be absolutely useless, and was not afraid of any threats the army could make. I suppose there comes a time when the army has to acknowledge that if it can’t make or break a man, then the only thing left is to get rid of him.
A few days later I was sent to the MO’s offices where I was to be examined by a psychiatrist. I knew little about the subject and wasn’t about to kid myself I did. The psychiatrist had a form which he started to fill in as he asked me questions. It occurred to me that there could be a catch here, for example if you answered “yes” to question one, then maybe you should answer “no” to question eight. After the first two questions, which I answered quite brightly, I suddenly said, “I can only see half your face. I‚ve got another migraine attack coming on.” He looked at me with some surprise but continued to ply me with questions. To some I made no response, to others I just shook my head. Before long he told me to go.
A few days later I ran into the corporal who acted as orderly for the MO. He stopped me. “I’ve got some good news for you, you lucky bugger,” he said. “You’re going to get your ticket. The trick cyclist has recommended you for discharge, and you’ll be going to the discharge station at Leeds.”
I just nodded my head, but as I walked away I felt more elated than I had for a long time. It had been a hard battle, but I’d achieved what I’d set out to do without going to the extremes or suffering the discomforts I’d have accepted if necessary. Ten days later I had a cheap army-issue civilian suit, a railway pass to Sidcup, and the most important thing the army could have given me - my discharge papers.
I have to reflect that had I been allowed to work in the RAF as a flight mechanic, and had the government given me a square deal with regard to allowances, my attitude would have been very different. I was incensed that my wife had to be reduced to something approaching the penury I’d experienced as a child in order for me to do a job which could have been easily done by a 12-year-old. If I’d not been provident and saved something for a rainy day, Trix would have had a very thin time. It would have been very rainy indeed.
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