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Chapter 6: My trip to Burma cut short

by CSV Media NI

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Archive List > Books > Alex Dickson - Memoirs

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CSV Media NI
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Alex Dickson
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30 January 2006

Group Shots From Training Courses

It was shortly afterwards that I was sent to a pre Officer Cadet Training Unit for training and then to the Corp of Signals Officer Cadet Training Unit at Catterick. The training was straightforward at the beginning, learning to ride motorcycles and use radios but I knew a lot about signals being a signals instructor -I learnt how to ride a motorcycle there. It all went on well and they had me in their sports team as I was an athlete and they liked that.

All went on well for a few months and then we started getting some very queer lectures from civilians, strangely enough, a bit odd looking some of them, and the first lecturer we got was this man and he says "Look here I'm here to tell you how to behave and what your to do when your dropped behind the Jap lines in Burma with a radio".

He says, "My suggestions are that you get in touch with the largest village close to you and try and deal with the head man and get him to help you recruit maybe ten to a dozen men who would be prepared to fight the laps and you can promise them that they will be well looked after, after the war if he does this, and don't worry in most of these villages in Burma there are always a few people in them that can speak English and you can always get an interpreter, there are always mission schools and so forth, and your main job when you get a good squad is use your radio get arms, explosives dropped, train your men in the use of arms and you yourself can look after the explosives and your main plans are to attack the rear lap lines and cause as much trouble as you can, slow down movement of their troops blowing up pieces of bridges and what have you and of course passing on useful information such as large troop movements".

We got these sort of lectures every so often and then we got one one day. He said "You'll have to agree to it whether you like it or not, when your dropped in Burma you'll have to be very careful that your never taken prisoner because they would get far to much information from you, you'd never be able to stick the torture and if you stuck it they would use drugs, they would want the names of the people who were fighting against them, when they got their names they would be rounded up and killed and probably their whole villages would have been destroyed and they would have got your radio codes which they would use, and they would kill you anyway, so before your dropped you'll be issued with a special tablet and if it looks as if your going to be taken prisoner you'll have to agree to this you just put it in your mouth and bite it and you'll have no more worries, cyanide."

You know at 22 years of age we didn't think there was anything very strange about that, it seems odd nowadays. So things went on and it must have been getting fairly near the stage when we would have been getting commissioned when strangely enough I was entered for a sports meeting one of these meetings where you do various things (I've forgotten the name of it) high jump, long jump, throwing the javelin plus track events -pentathlon. I said to the instructor "Look Sir, your silly entering me for this I am only a runner I've never trained for any of these other things,"
he said "Don't worry, it's a team effort, and we've already won it on paper, we're depending on you for the track events, we have it won before we start, but you have to take part in all the items".

Well the meeting came off and I took part but I landed badly at the high jump and hurt my left leg, I managed to run a race after it very painfully. So the following day I got up, the knee was a bit sore but I didn't go sick or anything, I thought maybe a day or two and it would be alright and we probably only had lectures that day.

Unfortunately during that day they told us to get changed we were going on a special assault course that was built for us to practice parachute landing. Well I went over the first time and was careful to land on the right foot to save the left leg, the Sergeant notices it, gave me a ticking off, sent me back to do it a second time and I tried to bluff it again but he spotted it and he really kicked up hell and I told him then that I had hurt my left leg at the sports meeting the previous night and that I was trying to save it a bit in case I would do it any more damage. He said "did you go sick this morning," and I said "No, but I would go sick now,"

"You can't go sick now you can only go sick in the morning, go back and do the bloody thing properly as you were taught landing on both feet and I can tell you this now you will be at it all day until you land on both feet."

So I went back and I had to land on both legs and collapsed the leg was bent and wouldn't straighten and I was in agony. It was obvious to me as a athlete my inner cartilage had come completely out of place, eventually I was rushed to Catterick Military Hospital an orthopaedic man saw me immediately took me to the theatre that day and manipulated the cartilage into place and the following day I was sent back to the unit, without any instructions or anything. So two days later I was stooping down to polish my boots and it clicked out again. I went back to Catterick Military Hospital again but when I got back this, was the beginning of August 1944 not long after D Day the specialist had been transferred and the only officer in the ward was a young second lieutenant who had just joined the British Army straight from University and I found out afterwards with absolutely no medical training other than university. He had seen the specialist manipulate my leg and he thought he could do it so for the first seven weeks every Monday morning he took me to the operating theatre full anaesthetic and tried to straighten my leg all I knew that when I wakened up it was always far more painful than before it still locked un- able to move it. This went on for over two months and eventually a new specialist arrived. On his first day round he came to my bed the sheet was pulled back, the nursing sister Captain with also this young doctor he looked at my leg and he said "Good God, Almighty what has happened to that leg, his right leg is perfect, every muscle, the left leg there is not a muscle and its bent into a very bad position",

the sister interrupted, "Oh Doctor so-and-so has him down to theatre seven times trying to manipulate the leg without success".

He turned round and looked at the young doctor, he was an Australian and very out-spoken, "he says you bloody fool, no one would ever have given you permission to do that, you have ruined that man's leg, I can tell even without examining it, its not fit enough to operation on I'll have to get the muscles toned up, and God kows what damage we'll find but my own personal opinion is that it is ruined, we'll be lucky if the man ever walks again."

Well it was a few weeks later after various treatments on the muscles before the operation and the day before the operation the anaesthetist came round and he told me I was being operated on the next day did I want a full or a local anaesthetic and I opted for a local anaesthetic. The following day I was wheeled into the operating theatre and they turned me over on my face and give me a spinal anaesthetic which freezes the body from the waist down and you don't feel anything, but you are wide awake, so I was wide awake all during the operation and the specialist had two other officers with him, I think, under instruction, and whilst he was waiting on the anaesthetic taking effect he was telling them about this operation he said, "it's probably going to be a bloody mess, because a young doctor without any experience has been pulling and hauling on the leg, under anaesthetic for seven or eight weeks and God knows what he has done, he has probably pulled every cartilage in the leg to pieces, we won't know until we open it."

So he opened the top of the leg and I could see this as I was awake and could see the reflections and he pulled out wee bits of fattish material and commented, "just as I bloody well thought, cartilage torn into tiny pieces. God knows where the pieces all are"

Then eventually they turned me over and opened around the back of my leg and I found a lot of bits there. I had been in this hospital from the 4 August and I was I still in the hospital at Christmas I got out for a few days leave at Christmas on I crutches. When I went back they transferred me to a smaller hospital Maxwell Hall Auxiliary Hospital, a convalescing place where I got some physiotherapy which is the only treatment I got other than the operation in all that time and after a few months there I was able to walk with two sticks and I was sent back to my unit, I went back immediately to the Corp of Signals at Catterick. The Colonel sent for me immediately and he said, "Cadet Dickson I have bad news for you, we will no longer be able to commission you in the Corp of Signals,"

I said "why Sir,"

he says "because of your medical category,"
I said, "but my medical category is A Sir", "no, no, no it was A before your accident, a panel of doctors changed your medical category before you left hospital your medical category is now B permanently which means they don't consider that it will improve, and that makes you unfit for active service, so you will be no use for the job we were training you for, there is no way we can drop you by parachute in Burma now, we can't use you on special operations, we'll have to commission you into another unit."

I said, "look Sir, I would rather just go back into the Rifles,"

"No, no," he said "you can't do that, there is still a war on and we have spent many thousands of pounds training you to be an officer and believe it or not I can tell you now you were the best cadet we had, you were ready to be commissioned, so you will have to take a commission and the only two units you can get a commission in now are the Royal Army Pay Corp or the Pioneer Corp."

"Well Sir," I said, "I don't fancy the sound of the Pay Corp, that sounds like office work and I joined up to get away from office work.”

"Well", he said, "the Pioneer Corp would suit you better then if you want a bit of action, in the Pioneer Corp your in charge of troops doing labour but they can in an emergency be used as a rifle regiment as a matter of fact their cap badge is a spade crossed with a rifle, so your both labourer and fighter. You will probably be working a lot with engineers and so forth, maybe laying bridges, clearing mine fields and so forth.”

"Right, Sir", I said, "I'll take that",

"OK" he said, "OK, we'll get you transferred and you will be commissioned."

So I was transferred to the Pioneer OCTU and I was commissioned quite quickly, it was 1945 unfortunately, I should have been commissioned if I had stayed with the Corp of Signals in 1944 and sent to Burma. As it was I was commissioned a bit before the war finished and posted to various units up round the Catterick area, prison camps and what have you, in charge of prisoners. I was there a few months getting on quite well and the leg had improved a bit I was able to get about with one stick and a bandage. Then I was posted overseas I was sent to a transit camp at Prestatyn in Wales, the old holiday camp, to await shipment to Egypt with two other 2nd Lieutenants from the Pioneer Corp.

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