- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John Rawlings, Muriel, Reg, Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks
- Location of story:
- Runnymead on Thames, Wigtoft in Lincolnshire, Grantham in Lincolnshire, Chilham and Chartham near Maidstone, Clifton College in Bristol
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 29 July 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by (Helen Smith) on behalf of (John Rawlings) and has been added to the site with his/her permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
The remnants of the British army who were fortunate enough to get back to these shores were distributed throughout the country irrespective of their regiment, corps or company. Most of their equipment had been left behind and they were no longer a fighting force and unlikely to recover that unity of purpose which had bound them together in adversity. Trowbridge in Wiltshire received their share of returning soldiers. They could be seen everywhere, sitting on the curbside and in doorways, dispirited, dishevelled and disconsolate. As we left the train from Margate, transport took us to a variety of locations. For me, it was a large country house with little comfort, where we were housed and fed. On the first night one of our number had succeeded in getting drunk before bedding down on the second floor. Not unexpectedly, he woke later, aware of a pressing need to relieve himself. He did not know the geography of the mansion but did see an open window. His efforts to relieve himself in his inebriated state caused him to fall out of the window on to a concrete path where he was found the next morning very cold and very dead,
It was every one’s aim to let their families know that they were safe and in England but when we were released from our mansion and managed to get into town it was impossible to find an empty phone box. It was about nine pm when we gave up trying as Reg, still my companion, walked up the drive of a large house and rang the bell. Dirty and dishevelled, he did not have to announce himself, but asked if we could use their phone. We were wonderfully received and whilst waiting for a free line, we were well fed and watered.
Muriel came down the following day and we spent the time in a local park. It was spacious and on a slope, which was covered with khaki figures and their families, dressed in a multitude of bright colours, giving an atmosphere of peace and happiness. High in the sky a lone plane appeared and in a split second, only the colourful families could be seen. The khaki was deep in the ditches at the foot of the hill. My father had asked one of his customers in Trowbridge to help us find accommodation which was in short supply. When we called later in the day, we were welcomed and given their own bedroom. Such was the attitude of the public to the returning army.
Gradually we were sorted into our regimental groups and finally our own company were together again at Runnymede on the Thames. On our first parade a platoon commander addressed us and called us cowards, running away from the enemy in terms which were wholly untrue and unacceptable. The ranks, fortunately, were unarmed but extremely angry. As soon as we were dismissed, three of us went to the OC and spoke vehemently of the way we had been treated. For once I found respect for the OC in the way he listened and asked us to leave the matter with him. That afternoon the officer concerned was seen leaving the company with all his baggage. We learnt later that he had been posted to West Africa with immediate effect,
Priority was now given to moving troops to central areas where they could be regrouped and made up to their original establishment. The High Command was quick to realise the need to transform this ragged bunch into an effective army in double quick time. The method used was to impose strict discipline at every level, reverting to “square bashing,” route marches, parades, physical training and the like. It was accepted that these First World War tactics were outdated and that in many areas officers were ill equipped and poorly trained. We had our share of these changes and although tough and unexpected, they were gradually effective.
We were constantly on the move and gradually reequipped with commandeered civilian transport to be used on a variety of duties. Eventually we became static in Wigtoft in Lincolnshire. My vehicle was a large green Ford, which I drove into Grantham daily to pick up bread. Muriel was now with me and we rented a wee cottage, “one up, one down”, with a lean-to with a well which served our needs. The cottage was next to the vehicle park and each morning a member of the dismounted guard drove my van to the front door in return for a hot cup of tea. In fact the cottage was recognised as a useful break area and visitors were always welcome providing they brought tea, sugar, bread etc to which they had constant access as they supplied surrounding units with their daily rations. The vicar of the lovely church was very old and had to perform all service duties himself. Thus he welcomed his parishioners at the door, shuffled to the pulpit to announce the first hymn and then moved quickly to the organ to accompany the congregation. Again at the pulpit he took the reading and so on. He was delighted when I offered my services as a temporary organist and, later, a colleague, a professional singer, was our vocalist. The vicar kept us supplied with delicious home grown grapes. When we left he told us that, with our help, the congregation had doubled and the collections had trebled, for which he was very thankful.
Entertainment was non-existent in the village but, occasionally, we did get to Boston town hall for a dance. Our transport was a huge, old removal van into which we crowded. It had no seats and little to hang on to. Muriel had been smuggled aboard and we arrived safe and sound. Unexpectedly the police stopped the dance and we were ordered to report back to our units. We heard that a bridge had been blown up when an alarm had indicated that a German invasion had started. When we got to our transport, the sergeant refused to let Muriel travel with us, but once again she was smuggled aboard. We sat up all night in our cottage, dishing out tea and sandwiches, until a stand down was confirmed.
Our next location at Chilham and Chartham, near Maidstone was to be a critical one for me. Monty had just taken control of the area and physical training was stepped up. This included a six am reveille followed by a cross-country run and similar inflictions. Nearby there was a mental hospital where we ran dances, with a goodly supply of nurses and local girls one of whose parents agreed to have Muriel over the Christmas. Our dinner there was a huge success although with only one hare to be carefully shared among us.
Leave passes were regular but not always without problems. My mother always greeted us with the news of neighbours’ sons who had been promoted to corporals, sergeants and even one officer whilst her boys remained as privates. Dad took us aside and apologised for these outbursts but understood when I explained that with a territorial unit all posts were filled before we joined up. Unknown to us my father wrote to the War Office and asked if there was any reason why his sons, both qualified in their chosen professions, were not making progress. A telegram from the WO was delivered instructing the OC to report what courses we had been on and what special training had been given etc. Ron, in the company office, had seen the telegram and told me. I was not surprised to get the call to the OC. In short he said he had been watching my progress and now would be the time to go on a Junior Commander course with a temporary rank of unpaid lance corporal. I made sure I got a good report and, on conclusion, I went home on leave. The joy that the one stripe gave my mother was amazing. A week or two later my platoon officer told me to take the temporary stripe off. When I went home on my next leave, the expression on mother’s face, when no stripe was evident, was a picture. Dad wrote a second time. There was another telegram this time more direct “Report immediately on course results”. The next day I was again in the OC’s office and what followed was ludicrous. He was pleased with my performance on the course. He was sending me to CRASC that afternoon. I would see the Brigadier early the following week and the divisional commander, Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks had been asked to give his approval for me to go to OCTU. And so it all happened. My meeting with the General was the best part of it. He was the most gracious officer I have ever met and we chatted for some time. Officer training was never mentioned.
I had successfully jumped the divisional hurdles but I still had to face the WOSB (War Office Selection Board). On the appointed day, in freshly pressed uniform, I was greeted by a kindly, if elderly, sergeant in a double Nissen hut joined end to end with a waiting room between. The sergeant gave us the drill. The board, consisting of five top brass officers, would be sitting at the far end of the companion hut to the one in which we were waiting. When our name was called we would move into the hall between the two huts. When the board were ready for the next applicant, the sergeant would open the door and give your name. He would then stand aside and the candidate would come to attention, pause, and march to the table, halt, salute, and give his name and number finishing with “Sir”. At all times the eyes would be looking straight ahead and never at the members of the board.
My turn came. The sergeant gave me a pat on the arm saying “ you’ll be all right, son”. He opened the door and announced my arrival in a voice which could be heard across the barracks. The sergeant stood aside, and I was away. Although I say it myself, I marched the short distance well, keeping my eyes away from the table, which I was fast approaching. Judging to halt one yard from the five members of the Board, I came to a smart halt but, for some unaccountable reason, my feet did not obey the order and continued on their own accord in a direct line straight under the table, and I followed them. Tables, chairs and papers fell noisily to the floor. The sergeant came in at the double and quickly restored order. The reaction from the officers differed. As far as I can recollect one or two saw the funny side of my predicament, whilst the others were certainly “not amused.” I apologised for, what for me, could only be a disaster of such magnitude that my future would forever be damned. The interview proceeded as if nothing untoward had happened. Apart from asking me to leave more carefully than I had entered, nothing was said. In fact the chairman thanked me for attending.
It was with some surprise that, once again, I was ordered to the OC’s office to be told to pack my kit and collect my railway pass to Lytham St. Anne’s reporting to the Officer i/c of pre OCTU. This was followed with a curt dismissal and I felt that he was glad to see the back of me. I have little recollection of my training except the early morning PT on the beach. Presumably I must have passed, as I was sent on my way to OCTU at Clifton College, Bristol.
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