WW II, a British focus



 

 

     AND SO TO WAR!

That night, with most barely recovered from their night out in Aldershot, we marched to the station and entrained for shipment to France, the whole 1st Guards Brigade of the 1st Division. The ship was the Maid of Orleans and the sea was rough. As troops lined the rails being sick over the side, so troops lined the rails of the decks above being sick onto those below. I was not sick myself, but it was ghastly. The only distraction was Lewis guns being allowed to fire at seagulls for practice.

We landed at Cherbourg and marched to the railway station where there was soon an enormous crowd. Word went round that there was two hours wait. It was here that the character of my platoon began to surface. Being the County Regiment of Hampshire, it took in Channel Islanders and so, in the platoon we had three, Galliene, Macey and Titch Fortune. It was suggested that we slip off and get a drink. Some 7 or 8 agreed, and hoping to establish myself as 'one of them' joined them whilst the others took care of our gear. We had to go right back to the dockland area before finding an estaminet (bar) and entered finding it rather crowded including a few French matelots with their blue berets with red pom-poms on top. We got drinks and then I wished I had not come because Galliene decided to acquire one of those pom-poms. It did not seem likely but Macey took him up on it and demonstrated that he was no mean bookmaker taking bets all round. Galliene was short, half the size of any of the sailors but, sidling up close to one he whipped out an ugly looking knife, a pom-pom was gone and he was going for the door like the clappers. Naturally we followed and belted up the road with half the estaminet on our heels. Arriving back at the station we quickly became lost in the crowd gasping for breath, laughing like idiots whilst Macey collected. Apparently he knew Galliene better than the rest of us.

Our destination might have been the South of France. Although the weather had been generally good despite being autumn, it was like mid-summer with azure blue skies and the countryside where we were encamped might have been the Garden of England. The only problem was food, initially hardtack and corned beef, French bread and butter that to us tasted rancid - even if it wasn't - cheese that was unlike anything we had tasted before making our mouths' sore. There was also a soup ration that could have been dishwater and discontentment boiled up. What was 'I' going to do about it? I had not the faintest idea but now the long service experience of my compatriots emerged. It was pointed out that Clarke was a qualified cook and if we could draw our own rations and he would cook for us. We would fare much better because, for a start we had properly weighed out rations. Clarke needed some persuasion. Then it was up to me to approach Crusty, with the request backed up in the form of a general complaint. He put on a show of being furious at first, that I should have the temerity to make such a proposal, putting him in the position of having to take it further. The project seemed doomed as he turned to walk away but suddenly he turned and said he would make the application provided we would provide his meals too. The crafty sod was suffering too. It was a great success, our rations including a full measure of meat so, with some foraging around for fresh vegetables we ate well, but not for long since we were to move on.

Wherever we had been, it certainly was not the South of France, for starting late afternoon and marching all night we arrived at the Belgium border. The roads were cobbled all the way so I cannot imagine the platoon enjoyed it very much. For myself, I had a piece of equipment not mentioned before, an army bicycle. With my rifle strapped to the crossbar I had to do marker. That involved going ahead, taking directions from an officer on a motorbike and directing the column on at various junctions. It seemed an easier option, until clattering over the cobbles I broke off the left half of the handlebar. To control it now over the cobbles was like trying to ride a wild horse. It was a curse to push and I could not discard it. Eventually I found that owing to the brakes being the old fashioned rigid type, not cable, I could with considerable difficulty use the left hand brake for some support although I continually applied the brake against my will.

The nearest town was a small rural affair not much more than a village called Templeuve. The platoon was billeted in a barn of a small farm less than half a mile away. There was straw from which we made mattresses and settled down wondering what the future had in store. We remained stationed there for eight long months through the winter of 1939/40. If Crisp and I being the youngsters were keen to get on with the war, the others, mostly married, expressed no urgency about anything other than to get to the estaminet 400 yards up the road as often as possible. Our pay and the rate of exchange were so favourable that I found with my basic pay and other increments, (not suffering any of the deductions for the Regimental Magazine that we never saw, or the rifle club that we never fired at), one could get drunk twice a day and still save, which most did.

Telling the old sweats what to do did not generally present too many problems and I was able to join in most of their carousing, but there was always an undercurrent to put me down at any opportunity. Rations were delivered daily to the barn and we had no contact with the rest of H.Q. at all. We saw very little of Crusty either - apart from him appearing one day with the curt instruction to build a decontamination centre close to the barn, giving us for the first time, the chance to use our toolboxes. Our basic materials for the frame were rough round fencing poles. It was a chance to show what I could do although this kind of rough carpentry was far removed from my cabinet making experience. With most of the men at least half drunk most of the time yet glad of something to do, the project was a fair success despite nobody being inclined to take the thing seriously with several attempts at engineered clumsiness to knock off the roof. Having completed the framing that stood like a skeleton we waited for cladding or instructions as to what should be used. In vain, it was never finished.

One night in the estaminet Crusty bowled in and went through to an inner sanctum taken over by Warrant Officer's. A few minutes later a crate of champagne was presented to us with his compliments. That was quite a night. I remember ordering a glass with a drop of everything on the shelf, standing on a table and singing the Marseilles in French. I fell off and was taken back in the barrow scheduled for this purpose and used daily.

Winter came on and it was a hard winter. Concrete pillboxes were being built nearby by a Pioneer Corps of older men who worked around the clock in shifts and kept huge fires going to keep the frost at bay. We were snowed in and it was difficult to get to the estaminet even, but I had given up drinking having trouble turning over in the night. I spent much time helping the farmer, once helping him calf a cow, on another slaughter a pig. I joined his family some evenings when we sliced potatoes thinly and layed them on the old range to make crisps. They were very nice too with a sprinkle of salt but peeling, slicing and turning them on the hot surface was really what it was all about. There was any number of snowball fights during which Macey managed to cut my face with one at close range. It had a large stone in the middle, but sneaky little tricks could not undermine my determination to stand up to them.

The weather continued the same and life became ever more boring. I was approached to ask Crusty for permission to use the truck to take them into Templeuve where there was a small cinema and two or three estaminets that prepared meals such as egg and chips. I traipsed through the snow to the W.O. quarters and asked for P.S.M. Head. From what I saw, they were not much better off than ourselves. Crusty materialised looking gloomier than ever. I put the proposition to him, assuring him that we would make economies to replace the petrol we used. He did not say no but called me a bloody fool, then announced that we were all officially snowed in. With that he turned on his heel and disappeared. I may have misunderstood his meaning but the message I got was that 'he' certainly was not going to be out and it was unlikely anyone else would be.

What the hell, if the men wanted to go, I would go with them and we did. With chains on the wheels, roaring through the driving snow with half the platoon in the back crouched down from the wind. I was bitter cold up front with the driver. I am sure we lost the road and drove across the fields but we arrived in one piece. The cinema by our standards was a joke. Simply a hall with a lot of chairs set in rows on level ground. At the door we bought tickets, several bottles of beer and waited. The projector was on the side and the film was an old silent one so there was no language problem. The audience quickly lost interest and gave over to talking and laughing with beer bottles falling over and rolling about. It was nice to get out and find a place for a meal. Some asked if there were any brothels and some went out making enquiries by knocking on doors. There were no brothels but it didn’t seem to matter as some went in and stayed.

I thought it wise to get back before dark and began rounding them up. Not only was I four men short but Francis, our driver, was completely blotto, sitting on the floor out to the world. In desperation I got those present to go knocking on doors in search of the missing and, true to form, Galliene was last having to be dragged off a bed and stuffed into his trousers. Francis had been woken but was in a real mess and nobody else could drive the truck. After liberal applications of snow to the face and neck Francis swore that if we would put him up in the driver's seat he would get us back. He did, driving like the wind itself and shouting exhilarating noises at the top of his voice with his foot down hard.

It was dusk as we sped along and I saw two Guardsmen by the wayside through the swirling snow. I called to Francis to take care, but he ploughed on. I shall never know if he hit them or they leaped out of the way in time. They certainly left the ground as they jumped or were thrown back into the deep snow. Shaken, I had the presence of mind to call out to those in the back to hang something over the divisional sign but we arrived back and nothing was heard - to my relief.

The weather broke and it was possible to move around a bit more. Nobody seemed interested in us, until one day Crusty arrived in the barn clutching a square metal box in his arms as though it was a chicken trying to escape. He carefully laid it in the straw and announced, ‘Corporal Durey, this is a French anti-tank and personnel mine, this is the detonator’. Then, giving me a small piece of paper continued: ‘This is the instructions. In one hours time, you will give a lecture and demonstration to all the W.O's and officers in the barn behind the W.O's quarters. Meanwhile get the platoon up there and arrange seating for fifty and a table out front for the demonstration’. I remonstrated, I have never seen one before. ‘Neither have I’ he replied. With that he turned and left.

I gazed down at my collection. The box, about nine or ten inches square by three inches deep had rounded corners and the top edge was rounded too, it was painted dark green. The detonator, bright and shiny, was like an oversize sparking plug. I picked up the instructions and stared helplessly - it was printed in French. Neither Macey nor Fortune could speak French well. It took five minutes to locate Galliene who teased me at first, but soon managed to get to grips with it whilst the platoon arranged planks on fruit boxes for seating and there was a trestle table set in front. Right on time officers, sergeants and warrant officers began arriving filling the place with several standing at the back. As they settled I approached the table and gingerly laid the mine and the detonator beside it. I had no training or experience in anything like this before but was determined to brass it out. I stared around at my audience. In the first row were the Commanding Officer and other senior officers. At the back I could see Crusty standing right beside the door, the bastard.

'Gentlemen and officers' I began, hoping that would be all right. I spun out how the top could be removed and a spring adjusted by turning a ferrule up or down, so that with the detonator fitted, the mine was suitable for anti-personnel use at the slightest touch, or could be adjusted so that personnel could pass safely over, but the weight of a vehicle would detonate it. Whilst talking, I gave a practical demonstration with the mine adjuster and top but when I picked up the detonator and began screwing it on, the Adjutant called, 'I suppose you know what you are doing Corporal?' I looked up and saw that the front row leaning back with white faces. I beamed and replied 'I think so, Sir'. Having completed my repertoire I stood to attention and asked if there were any questions. No, there were no questions, and with 'Thank you very much' from the C.O., the place emptied as though I had the plague. It was a little while before I could locate Crusty and gently put the thing into his arms with the detonator still in the top. I asked if I had done alright. 'I suppose so' he said gruffly and took himself off to get rid of the mine. He did not know, nobody except Galliene and I knew, that the mine and detonator were dummies.

It was now possible to have day passes to Lille and Duai. These were popular because not only were there shops unaffected by the blackout, but the estaminets were bigger and better. But more than that, there were brothels. In Lille, in particular, there was L'Rue De La Femme, a road of tall houses outside of which blousy women would parade calling 'Come inside Tommies, twenty pretty girls'. Whatever one's principals or morals, one could not help be interested, they were certainly popular. Usually on these outings I would go off with Clack, who I got on particularly well with. We would find a decent place where we could play bar billiards and drink. On one occasion the proprietor of a large establishment who could speak English befriended us and offered to show us the nightlife. He took us in his car to a rather seedy looking place, but inside, well, it was no more than a high class brothel. The girls were very attractive and well dressed coming and going through heavy velvet curtains and the air was heavy with perfume. It was all too expensive for us and so took our leave.

At our billet Galliene was excited about a particular brothel where there was a ginger haired girl he fancied but did not want her if the hair was dyed. Macey inevitably took charge, opening a book taking bets, red or dyed? The upshot was about a dozen of us took day-passes and descended on the establishment. There were several steps up to the porch where, in the darkness we found a soldier, believe it or not, masturbating. Moore shook him roughly and told him 'be a man and get inside’. A plaintive voice replied that he had been in twice and had no more money. There seemed no answer to that.

We trooped in. There was a large room as though two or three rooms had been knocked through. At one end a makeshift bar where you could buy drinks and were a downright swindle. Tables and chairs were set all around leaving space for dancing in the centre. The far end seemed mainly occupied by civilians and the rest by soldiers. About a dozen girls drifted around, some in revealing cotton dresses with nothing beneath, others in dressing gowns that they could flick aside to show they had nothing on underneath. With our drinks we took up two tables near the door and waited for Ginger to appear. As there were no sign of her moving around with the other girls some depression sank in. We assumed it was her night off. There was a staircase, these places were supposed to have a reputation for grand staircases but this one was not so grand. It was narrow and well worn with a continuous flow of traffic up and down. We learnt that one could have a basic service and expect to be back down in ten minutes, or half an hour with the lights out and so on. We were on the point of leaving when Ginger came down stairs preceding a civilian who had presumably had the fuller treatment. No doubt about it, she was a cracker, but ginger? Who could tell by just looking. Galliene had been armed with a pair of scissors and to win the bet was to obtain a reasonable sample of her pubic hair. All eyes were on him now as he leaned forward intently to catch her eye like a dog pleading for a bone. One felt like saying, 'Go on boy, fetch!' He got up and engaged her in conversation whilst she steered him to the bar. They came away with a bottle and two glasses. His ability to speak French fluently was an asset as she was clearly enjoying the exchanges as they disappeared upstairs.
 

A half hour passed. Three quarters and we were in danger of missing the last train back when all hell broke loose. A screaming female voice followed by the thunder of army boots on the stairs and there was Galliene heading for the door like the clappers clutching something in one hand and the scissors in the other. She stopped at the foot of the stairs shouting and pointing at him.

We all headed for the door but it was not big enough causing a traffic jam. Then we burst out into the street some running one way and the rest the other. We were being chased and a whistle sounded as we tore off. Whoever was in front cut up a side turning and rest of us followed blindly, yes, that's the word. We came to a dead end, gates across the road like an entrance to a builders yard. We clambered over, falling onto heaps of sand and rubble, across a yard and over another gate not stopping until we reached the station. The others were already there with Galliene brandishing his trophy, a tuft of curly ginger hair. As far as I know, none of the group went near the place again.

It was the custom to detail someone to remain in the barn each day, each of the three sections taking it in turn to provide the detail. I had recommended Pony Moore and Tich Fortune for section leaders and so they were now unpaid lance corporals. It was Moore's turn to detail someone one day but everyone was going out. He, with three of his friends were the last as they headed up the road for the estaminet. I called out asking who had been detailed to stay behind. Moore presumably had forgotten and since his section were already gone, it put him in an awkward position but he reacted by saying, 'I've had enough of him, I'm going to give him a good hiding' and came marching back. Apparently it was, after all this time, showdown time at last. Despite their rugged and abrasive personalities the platoon were not a bad lot. On the contrary, had I been a Second Lieutenant with a plummy accent my tender age would have been accepted without reservation. But a Cockney L/Cpl of 19? That was too much to stomach and so, in the end, it had come to this.

Pony Moore came back towards me with his companions trailing behind. He brusquely told me to get back into the barn. I replied that if he was going to give me a 'good hiding', we would go to a small clearing amongst some shrubbery at the end of the farmyard and everyone else to stay put. Surprised perhaps, that I did not appear intimidated he agreed, not realising that I had stolen some of the initiative although, quite honestly, I had not seen it like that. We arrived in the clearing and he shaped up like one of the old time bare-knuckle fighters. I brought my hands up but my thoughts were racing. Despite the fact that Pony had been one time middleweight champion of all India, he was now something over thirty and had kept up the heavy drinking. I had drunk very little for some time. He was stockily built but considerably shorter, I was tall and had a longer reach. He did not know that I had sparred with professionals and had been involved in fights in the East End of London, and been good enough for the H.Q. team at Aldershot.

I stood there relaxed, after all, it was he who was to give me a hiding, so he had better get cracking. But suppose I should beat him, or produce an inconclusive result? Would I, like the top gunman in the West, have to take on half the other reservists? I was not sure what line to take for the best, only knowing that come what may, I could not back down. As my thoughts raced he sprang a straight blow to my chin. I was at the limit of his reach and being relaxed, it only pushed my head back. I noticed that he was a southpaw having used his right hand and had stamped his left foot forward as he threw the punch to gain maximum reach and power, a technique taught in the Hampshires. He did it again with the same result but I made no move. I was more confident now and ready to counter.

Instead of following up, he invited me to 'Come on'. But still I waited simply saying 'Not bad, but you will have to try a littler harder'. He shuffled his feet as though poised for action and then suddenly dropping his hands said 'You're a Bastard - but you've got guts!' And that was that. He had not given me a hiding and I had not compromised myself or shown what I could do. He marched off back to the barn and as I followed could see that he had detailed someone to stay. It was a moral victory. I had no wish other than to do my job and be friends, but in the army that requires a lot of experience which, one way or another was coming.