TTGU, Ep. 1, Ch. 2 – Getting There
I remember very little of the trip from Wolverhampton to London. The green fields swished by and I noted the windmill on the hill above the little village of Fenny Compton. I would look out for that windmill on all my journeys from and to my training-camp. Wonder if it’s still there.
At Paddington station, I got directions for which underground train to take to Waterloo. A bit of an adventure in itself, that. Yet the London underground would become quite familiar to me over the next sixteen weeks (the last four of which was for “specialist training” for which I was chosen!). I was impressed with the whole structure and layout of Waterloo (though displeased with myself for admiring anything to do with the LMS, me being a Western man). It didn’t take me long to find the platform from which I would do the last leg of my journey. And I was cheered by the words on my calling-up papers assuring me that
“A BUS WILL MEET YOU AT THE STATION.
There were other lads of my age on that train, but none of us spoke to each other. We knew that we were all off to be taught to be soldiers, but the formalities of not speaking to strangers in civvie-street still prevailed. We weren’t in uniform yet.
Some of those lads got off at stations before I reached my stop. Then, it was my turn to get off and start looking for the promised bus. A bunch of us stood outside the station and stared around for the vehicle. Suddenly, an Army three-tonner screeched to a stop and a diminutive, bespectacled lance-corporal leapt out.
“You lot for our barracks? Jump in – double-quick!”
We piled into the back of the lorry and the little lance-jack followed. “Hang on, you lot – it’ll be a bit bumpy.” We hung on to whatever we could and all hoped we wouldn’t be bounced off the open back. It seemed to take no time at all to swing into the barrack gates.
Out jumped the little lance-jack. “Get out!” he yelled at us. We did so.
“Now then, you lot, you do what you’re told from this moment on,” he railed. One or two of the lads said a courteous “Yes, sir.” That seemed to antagonise him.
“”I’m Lance-Corporal Keogh. When you address me, you will address me as ‘Corporal’ – got it?”
We all said “Yes . . . Corporal”.
“Now then” – he always seemed to start with those words – “there’s a meal ready for you in the cookhouse. Follow me.”
The meal consisted of great wedges of bread between which hid lumps of corned-beef. It was swilled down by British Army tea so strong that you could have cut it off in slices. One learned to like such fare, and even looked forward to it after a few weeks.
We were taken for registration and given basic fatigue uniforms and a couple of pairs of Army boots. “What size shoe d’you take,” asked the bloke in the stores. “Nine and a half, Corporal” I said. “Huh – you’re fussy. Here’s some size ten. Do your best.” He also issued us with KFS (knife, fork and spoon) and a big tin mug each.
There were to be six platoons in our intake. Coloured badges were handed out, mine being blue. “Come on, the blue badge brigade,” said a chirpy Yorkshire voice which I later found out belonged to Roy Sheppard, “Let’s all stick together.”
And we did, all thirty of us blue-badge National Servicemen – though we would be known as E6 platoon and had black flashes on our epaulets to denote we belonged to E-Company. We piled into our billet, located our alphabetical-order bed-space and were told to change into the fatigue uniforms supplied by Her Majesty. We did so.
“I think we look a real smart lot,” said a Derby accent from opposite my bed-space. It was Roy Barham, the strutting creep who later became Lance-Corporal Keogh’s favourite recruit. Roy was wrong: we looked like a bunch of scruffs in our ill-fitting fatigues. But my boots seemed to fit.
It was early evening by the time all the registering and changing was done, so we were marched off – well, marched after a fashion – down to the cookhouse for the evening meal. Very quietly, we sang The Ying-Tong Song which became our squad’s marching song thereafter. Once there, as in all Army canteens, we were given two choices of food: take it or leave it. What could have been good food had been cooked to death by the Army Catering Corps. And yet, these days, I remember actually enjoying the burnt meat and solid vegetables which became my daily fare back then.
Before we were quite finished eating, Keogh made us leave the canteen and march back to our billet. Then, bidding us a fond goodnight, he closed the door, went into his little private cubby-hole and left us to it. Lights-out was smack on10 p.m.
A few minutes later, the barrack-room door opened and in walked an overweight man. He wore a track-suit and plimsolls, an outfit which did not suit a man who’d obviously never done any real exercise in his life. Trotting along behind him was Corporal Keogh. The fat man flicked the light-switch and strutted down the centre of the billet, giving each one of us the once-over with his little, piggy eyes, as he did so. He spoke to one or two of us.
“D’you know who I am?”
Of course we didn’t.
He turned – Keogh leaping out of his way – at the far end of the billet and came back asking the same question. The lad in the bed-space nearest the door was asked the question.
Making his exit, the fat man said loudly: “You don’t know who I am yet . . . but you will do!” (Exit fat man stage-centre in true theatrical style.)
“Who was he?” we all asked Keogh.
“That was your sergeant-major: Sergeant-Major Ampleford.”
We were all to get to know each other very well in a very short space of time.
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