Alan Carol Dent served with The Parachute Regiment between 7 June 1945 and 17 February 1948. He was parachute jump trained at RAF Ringway on Course number B184.
These are extracts from his personal diary he wrote during his service with The Regiment.
One month after my 18th birthday I received my call up papers for the army, I had to report on the 7th June 1945 to the Cavalry Barracks at Colchester in Essex. I received a railway warrant for my journey and full instructions of which articles I had to bring with me.
The barracks at Colchester were the home of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, which for six weeks was to be my initial training centre.
On arriving at Colchester railway station we were transported by lorry to the barracks where we gave our details and were interviewed and issued with our uniform, which was a khaki beret and battledress and a pair of heavy boots. We were also given our army number, which it is said no one ever forgets for the remainder of their life, mine was 14038759 which I still remember over 50 years later.
During the next six weeks we carried out a number of tests to find our aptitude for various jobs in the army, for example, very few people could drive or had a licence. Those who could drive would be listed for a Regiment or Corps for which this would be useful. With my experience as a trainee electrician I was a likely candidate for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Corps, others in the bakery trade would be material for the Army Catering Corps etc.etc.
Apart from testing we of course spent hours on the barrack square being marched up and down, all of us who had been serving in Cadet Corps found this easy and did not mind being shouted at, those who hadn’t really suffered, to this day I still cannot understand how so many tried to march with their left arm and left leg forward at the same time.
None of us thought that we would be in the army for very long, the war in Europe had finished on the 8th May 1945. All our forces, together with the Americans, would be turned on the Japanese, we knew that any invasion of their mainland would involve heavy casualties but could not see them holding out for long.
It may seem strange, but all of us who had joined Cadet Organisations and trained hard in various skills and the usage of weapons found that the opportunity was rapidly fading away, this is why some of us volunteered to join elite groups to get into the action faster. My old friend John Ellis, who had served in 150 Squadron of the Air Training Corps with me, agreed to join the Parachute Regiment as it would give us a bit of flying and possibly a bit of action.
During our training at Colchester we had to put a grease called Dubbin on our boots to made them waterproof, this took the shine off the leather giving a matt finish. We lived in barrack rooms of about 30 men in double bunks, these were wood frames with a lattice of tin strips, the mattresses were three biscuits as we called them, probably filled with horse hair. We had some rough old blankets and a small course material pillow, we slept either naked or in our army shirts, pyjamas were unheard of.
We were allowed out on the town on a Sunday and I remember two very kind ladies who saw us walking round looking lost and gave us two free tickets for the theatre we were just passing, we went inside and found it was a symphony orchestra and they were playing the overture to the Barber of Seville, this was the first time I had been to a Concert and I found it very enjoyable. From then on I enjoyed listening to popular classics and bought many records after I left the army.
One of the chaps in our room was always acting a bit simple, we reckoned that he was trying to work his ticket, in other words that he was mentally unfit for army service. We had to do our own washing, and some of the lads told him that linseed oil, which we used on the wood stocks of our rifles, gave a good lather. I have never seen such starched pants and shirts; they hung on the clothesline stiff as boards.
We came to the end of our six weeks training and were posted to various army units, those of us who had volunteered for the Paras’ were taken to a transit camp at Southampton, this consisted of a number of Nissan huts behind a fence and backing onto the sea. We were allocated various huts with the familiar double bunks, there were no biscuit mattresses this time, just two rough calico bags – one large and one small. We were told to take these to another hut, which contained a quantity of straw, we stuffed the two bags with the straw and took them back to our beds. We tried getting onto the large round bag which was our mattress and various blokes rolled off and crashed to the floor, one of the camp staff then came round and made us empty some of the straw out and then a tremendous bout of karate chopping produced the desired result.
We later went to bed with a couple of rough old blankets and wearing our shirts, we were all fast asleep when there was the most terrible din with the banging of metal tins, the hut lights were put on and shouts of “get on parade”. We leaped out of our bunks but were not allowed to put on our trousers or boots and were doubled across the shingle beach by the sea, it was painful to our feet and we stood there in three rows in just our little khaki shirts and a cold draught from the sea behind us. We stood there shivering, a combination of fear and cold, Suddenly a smartly dressed figure appeared in front of us “my name is Woodward, Sergeant Major Woodward, I am a bastard and I want you all to know it. Welcome to the Parachute Regiment” after a few more remarks we were dismissed and went back to our beds, I think we all felt the same, why did we volunteer to join the Paras’, was it always going to be like this?
Early the next morning the bugle sounded reveille and we had to take our pillow and mattress and empty the straw, we went to have our wash and shave in what is called the ablutions in the army. It was quite a shock to find out that there was no hot water and I nearly ripped my face to pieces until I got used to shaving this way.
We had breakfast in the cookhouse and were introduced to the army method of washing up, you first tipped any leftovers into a pig swill bin, you then went to a tank of boiling hot water with a fire underneath, you dipped your plate and fingers into this instant grease remover, you then went to the tank next door which consisted of cold water – this was a great relief to your scalded fingers as you immersed your plate or mess tin, mug and knife, fork and spoon.
We were later taken to a ferry and sailed across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, we landed at Cowes where we unloaded our kitbags and carried them to lorries waiting outside. I managed to get onto one of the lorries and as there wasn’t enough room for all, the rest had to march from Cowes to Newport, where the barracks of the no.1 Parachute Regiment Training Centre were situated.
We were taken to our various barrack rooms, having found our kitbags we were made to lay out our kit in a uniform system on our beds. After a long day spent in being documented we had our meal at the cookhouse and the returned to the barrack rooms.
A sergeant suddenly appeared and told us that the Parachute Regiment liked shiny boots, so shiny you could see your face reflected in them like a mirror. There were two problems with this; one, new army boots were made of a dimply leather and two, we had spent six weeks rubbing greasy Dubbin into them. He was not interested in our problems but demanded that by reveille at 0600 hours our boots would be up to standard or we would be on a charge.
A corporal came round and showed us that by using tins of Brasso, a liquid we had for cleaning our brass buckles and buttons etc., we could burn the Dubbin off our boots. With our toothbrush handles we could bone and smooth the leather ready for polishing with Cherry Blossom boot polish, which we had to bone in as well.
We had to have 13 metal studs in the bottom of each boot and our spare pair had to be laid out on the bed daily, with the soles blackened and the studs polished.
As I looked round the barrack room, with stubs of candles, flaring matches, the smell of burning grease and leather which went on to the early hours of the morning, I once again wondered why I had volunteered.
The next day we started our training which was designed to get us fit enough to pass a number of tests to progress further towards training as parachutists. We usually started off with a two mile run before breakfast wearing PT shorts, vest and boots. Later there would be 5 to 10 mile road run and walks wearing full battle order including steel helmets and rifles, then there would be press ups, chest ups and insteps to the bar on apparatus. Then we were marched up and down the Barrack Square, any fault and you were punished by being made to run round it for so many times.
The Barrack Square is a holy place in the army, no matter how big it is you are not allowed to walk across the Square, you walk round it, if you move a yard out of line it was guaranteed that the Regimental Sergeant Major would see you, his shrill screaming voice would be heard; “Get off the Square” off you got hoping that you were not recognised.
We all had to go to the Regimental barber, who I believed qualified as a car mechanic, our haircuts were known as “short back and sides”. On the next parade the Sergeant would be standing behind me bellowing that he had told me to get my hair cut, when I said that I had had it cut, he said I couldn’t have as he was standing on it, he then doubled me off to the barber for another cut, which was bald.
A combination of the Sergeant Major, Sergeants and Corporals did everything to find fault with everything we did, we realised afterwards that they were trying to break our spirit, they were forcing us to cry or retaliate by hitting them, running away or simply saying that we had had enough and we wanted to be returned to our unit, In my case this would have been the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry.
All this running and marching in boots with our thick woollen socks led to many painful blisters, all you could do was to prick them and rub some cream in, you dare not complain, no one was allowed to complain.
One of the many tests we had to pass was called milling, we were split into pairs wearing our PT kit, we formed a square like a boxing ring on a rubber PT mat, we then had to go in turn into the middle of the ring and for one minute we had to punch each others face to a pulp, we were wearing boxing gloves but were not allowed to turn away from each other, to block any blow or use footwork to get out of any trouble. With both arms milling away at your opponent you probably hit each other about 120 times in the 60 seconds allocated, this was probably more blows landing during a full boxing match, luckily as you were both hitting each other most of the blows were hitting each others arms, gloves etc. Anyone who backed away in this test failed and never carried on with the course.
After some of the tests we were issued with our red berets, we were then called “wingless wonders” by the camp staff who had their parachute wings and had gone through the suffering that we had gone through.
Most evenings we were allowed out of the barracks provided we were not spotted by one of the Corporals who might be awkward and decide to order us to clean out his bunk instead.
As I passed the guardroom at the entrance to the barracks very often the Regimental Police would be standing there and order me to double over to them, they would check the number of studs on my boots and my general turnout. If they were not satisfied they would send me back to barracks, sometimes they were just being bloody minded and it was all part of the treatment. Anyone caught eating fish and chips in the street, which was about all we could afford, was sent back to barracks by the RPs and put on fatigues.
We were trained to swing across water on the end of a rope and then crawl across a single rope followed by crossing using a pendulum method, we fired rifles at various ranges and did route marches all over the Isle of Wight. One of our tests was to run 200 yards in full battle order (steel helmet and rifle) carrying, using a “fireman’s lift” another soldier including his rifle. When you finished the run you swapped over and your partner had to run back with you, being carried was no joke with someone’s bony shoulder jerking into your stomach for the 200 yards.
Another test was to climb two vertical ropes a body width apart one in each hand, I think it was 10 feet, you then swung sideways onto another vertical rope which you climbed to 20 feet, you then made a controlled descent. The first part of this was very hard as you had all the weight on your arms and you could only move your hand a few inches at a time.
There were many such tests which were designed to weed out anyone who was physical unfit according too the standards laid down for the Regiment, with all the shouting and bullying we were being tested for our mental attitude, for self reliance, confidence and trust and reliance with our comrades. Extreme discipline without, in any way, becoming a robot.
It has been said many times that if all the officers and NCOs became casualties there would always be someone who would rise from the ranks to take charge and make decisions, as often happens in warfare, the decision may not be the right one, but as long as one was made and acted upon in all honesty then you would be backed by your commanding officer all the way. A bad decision was better than no decision at all.
After our three months training at the Parachute Regiment ITC those of us who had been selected had a final parade which was a march past for the commanding officer. He was, of course, accompanied by many dignitaries as a great deal of interest was always being shown in the Regiment. Never were better-polished boots, gleaming brass, better creases and standards of drill seen on any Guards Square. We marched past proudly wearing our red berets, with our chests out and shoulders back. We were it, we had passed, we were supreme.
This feeling of euphoria was very short lived when we were sent on the next part of our training to Hardwick Hall in Cheshire. After a much happier ferry crossing from the Isle of Wight we went by train to either Chesterfield or Mansfield, which were the nearest towns to our new camp.
The train was, of course, one of the marvellous old steam trains with its huffing and puffing, its clouds of steam and the clickity clack as it passed over the gaps in the unwelded rails. Into a tunnel and darkness with the smoke from the engine pouring in through the open windows, the smell of sulphur, the sound of coughing and later, burning eyes, the struggle to find and close the windows only to find we are out in daylight again. Despite this, we still look back with nostalgia to those days of travel by steam.
Hardwick Hall, I was to find out many years later, is one of the finest stately homes of England and is situated between Chesterfield, with its famous twisted spire and Mansfield. I cannot remember seeing the hall during the short time we were there as we were living in army huts in a camp well away from the hall, there was a very large lake in the grounds near the lake which I will mention later.
I would think that we arrived at the Camp in the middle of October and it was quite cold and this led to trouble on our last day at the Camp. If we thought that the training at the ITC was tough then we were sadly mistaken, here it was far worse. Apart from the daily PT and road run and walks we were made to run holding our rifles over our heads until our arms collapsed with the weight, we dug slit trenches with our entrenching tools. We spent nights in these with only our gas capes as a cover, the rain poured down the trenches and the trenches filled with water, we shivered and were soaked.
We waded in the water, we crawled in the mud, we were harangued, we were made to double, we were shouted at and we were screamed at.
We were then taken to a rocky, hilly area where ropes had been lowered 50 feet or more, we were taught how to put our legs either side of the rope, then holding the rope lay back in a horizontal position, we walked vertically up the cliff face. We had no safety harness and knew that if we let go of the rope it was a shear drop onto the rocks, when we reached the top we had to walk backwards down to the bottom again, after a short rest this was repeated several times. We were taught a form of abseiling by twisting a rope round our waist and then round our leg, by feeding the rope through itself you could slowly descend, this acted as a tourniquet and cut off the blood supply to your leg.
During the two week course at the Hardwick Camp we had another very thorough medical examination, a very close friend of mine was told that he needed some tooth extractions, he was frightened to death of dentists and refused any treatment, he was warned that if he did not have whatever treatment was required, he would be returned to his unit. We all tried our hardest to get him to go to the dentist, he still refused and the next day was sent to RTU, despite all the hardships he had gone through on the course and his absolute dedication, he could not overcome this fear and I lost a good friend and comrade.
Apart from the medical we had to take a psychiatric test, this consisted of a questionnaire which we had to complete by answering with the first thing that came to mind on reading the question. It was said that they could tell from your answers whether or not you were capable of jumping out of an aircraft, if they were not sure about your completed paper then you had to see the psychiatrist in person, he would then decide yes or no. Obviously we were all mad as we passed the test and were now ready to be sent for our parachute training at Ringway Airport near Manchester, this is now a civil airfield and is called Manchester Airport.
Our last day at Hardwick Camp was spent cleaning our huts from top to bottom, we cleaned the windows with old newspapers and had to return our coal supplies from beside the boiler in each hut, we blackleaded the stoves and had to paint the whitewash in the area round the boiler.
That evening we were all sitting in our barracks rooms on our beds, wrapped in our blankets, shivering with cold, someone noticed smoke coming from out of the chimney of one of the huts. The next minute our bayonets were produced and the wooden rifle racks were forced off the wall, broken up and burnt in the stove, as this supply was ran out it was the turn of the cupboards and any other available wooden object.
The next morning we were all paraded before the Commanding Officer who was not a happy man. Some of the mild words he used about us were “hooligans”, he said what he would like to do with us, this was most unpleasant. He knew, as we knew, that he could do little against a whole course which, that day, was moving for its stay with the Royal Air Force. He made sure that we did not get away with it, after we had finished our parachute training we were posted to a holding battalion, there we were told that during our stay at Hardwick Camp a sheep had been shot on a hill by someone firing a .303 rifle out of a window of one of the huts and a pedal cycle had been found lying half in the lake of the grounds I have previously mentioned. The police dragged the lake and found 200 rusty pedal cycles which had been stolen by soldiers over the years to get back to Camp, then there was our damage to fixtures and fittings, the cost of all this was added together and called “Barrack Damages”. This was divided amongst all the soldiers on the course and was deducted from our pay – over a fairly long time.
We had a Pay Parade once a week on a Friday, we stood in a line facing a table at which sat an Officer and his pay clerk. When your name was called you marched smartly forward, halted in front of, and saluted, the Officer, gave your number, rank and name and signed the pay sheet, you then saluted, turned and marched smartly out of the office. You were paid by the day and this amounted to less than one pound a week. Every week, whether you smoked or not, you were issued with a round tin containing 50 cigarettes, I didn’t smoke, so I used to give them to anyone who did.
We were taken to the Parachute Training Centre at Royal Airforce Ringway for the final phase of our training, we were amazed and delighted to be with the RAF, Corporals spoke to us as friends, Sergeants uttered words of encouragement and not abuse, even the command “Attention” was fully pronounced and stressed in a posh manner, we were used to an abrupt “Shun”, the difference was quite remarkable.
We were shown films of the training at the school and were then introduced to the Irving type parachute, which was fully automatic being opened by an attachment to a strop in the aircraft or balloon, they were apparently not much different to the type of chute used by Army Observers in the 1914 – 1918 war. The Observers stood in a basket suspended under a barrage balloon filled with inflammable hydrogen gas, the balloon was attached to a wire hawser which was attached to a winch, whilst up in the air, using telescopes or binoculars, the Observers could see where the shells fired by their artillery were landing and by means of a field telephone could give instructions to the gunners so that their fire could be very accurate. The enemy, of course, did not want this and they sent their fighter planes armed with special incendiary bullets to shoot the balloons down, the poor old Observer seeing them coming had to jump out of the basket with his parachute hoping to get clear before the balloon became a raging inferno and fell to earth.
The first training jumps at the PTS were out of Whitley bombers, the rear gun turret was removed and a small platform fitted in its place. The parachutists were bent double in the narrow confines of the fuselage, the first one clambered out onto the small platform stood up and pulled the ripcord of his aircrew type chute, the chute spilled out and was filled with air from the slipstream of the engines, this then dragged the parachutist off the platform and he floated down to the ground. By the time each man had jumped by this method they were so far apart that the idea was not practical.
A hole was cut in the floor of the Whitley and automatic parachutes opened by strop and line was adopted as the method of leaving the aircraft. The Paras sat around the round hole, which just gave clearance for them and the parachute fixed to their back, they had to be very careful because if you did not push yourself enough for the pack to clear the edge of the hole it tipped you forward so that your face or head hit the sharp edge of the other side of the hole, this was called “ringing the bell” it was not recommended. This also occurred when facing forward if the aircraft speed was too fast, the slipstream caught your legs first, tilting you forward so that you rang the bell.
This was the dodgy system used in the first operation by the Parachute Regiment on the Aquino Viaduct in Italy, they flew at less that 200 mph in these noisy, draughty, freezing cold cramped old bombers to Malta to refuel and then on to Italy. They carried out their mission but were captured trying to make their way to the coast, one was executed, and the rest became prisoners of war.
Wellington bombers were to replace the Whitleys, which still had the hole in the floor exit, when it had come to our turn we were lucky that we would be jumping from Douglas Dakotas – converted American passenger aircraft. These had a side door on the port side and could hold 20 paratroopers in comfort plus the RAF aircrew.
Most of our ground training was held in a large hanger, the floor was covered with thick rubber mats, there were mockup fuselages of a Dakota and Wellington together with many trestles at various heights which we were expected to jump from onto the mats practising our parachute landing roll. There were harnesses in which you could be swung and dropped to simulate a landing in various directions and there was also the Fan. We climbed a ladder up to the roof of the hanger where we walked along a gallery to a jumping point, here a RAF Instructor strapped you in a parachute harness, this was attached by rope to a spindle which had been wrapped around many times, it was similar to what you would find at the top of a well for raising and lowering the bucket, except that instead of a handle there was a propeller or fan. You jumped from a platform beside the fan and as you fell the rope unwound spinning the blades, the wind resistance created by the blades of the fan slowed your descent down to a safe landing speed.
The parachute harness was fastened to our bodies by two shoulder straps and two leg straps, the leg straps came between our legs and the metal tag ends were pushed into the bottom half of a circular quick release box, the shoulder straps fitted into the top half. If you wished to release your harness you turned the top of this box a half turn clockwise and gave it a smart bang with your fist, all four straps would fall out automatically. One of the first things you did was to adjust the leg straps after the chute had opened, due to the sudden jerk of the chute opening these straps were pulled tight into a most uncomfortable position.
We had been issued with a denim smock, which had been specially designed for Paratroopers, this was made of a camouflaged material and was put on over our head like a pullover. It had large pockets with press-studs and at the bottom was a strip of material which we pulled between our legs and fastened with two press-studs, this was to prevent the smock riding up when jumping.
As soldiers, we always wore a back pack to carry equipment in, we had to wear this with one of the shoulder straps around our neck so that it hung sideways on our chest, this left room for the parachute to fit on our backs where it was level with our shoulders and down to our bottoms. When we were fully equipped, before putting our chutes on, we had another garment shaped like a large waistcoat which covered our pouches, which were on our belts, and the backpack on our chest, this was to avoid having bits and pieces projecting from the body which might catch in the chute whilst it was opening.
There were various things that could go wrong when jumping with a parachute, the worst is that it doesn’t open and trails out behind the doomed jumper like the flame of a candle, this is why any unopened chute is referred to as a candle. Years before, when silk, which is highly flammable, was used, a thrown rigging line would sometimes strike across the canopy of the parachute like a match with the friction caused igniting the canopy material, this was called a “Roman candle”, fortunately we had a mixture of Rayon and Nylon chutes which did not have this problem.
A thrown rigging line, which is one of the many lines connecting the canopy to the four lift webs on the harness could catch across the top of the chute and would narrow the canopy into two segments, this would increase the speed of the descent and cause serious injury.
Twists were a major hazard and were caused by the jumper being caught in by the slip stream and put into a spinning motion, as the canopy and rigging lines were being pulled out of the parachute pack the rigging lines would become twisted together. If the twists occurred at the top then the air would not be able to enter and fill the canopy, lower down you had more chance, the thing was to realise what had happened and take remedial action. This meant assessing which way the lines were twisted and then rapidly bicycle pedalling in the air to unwind the lines, when the lines had unwound you would be spinning and to prevent the lines twisting the opposite way you had to force the two lift webs apart with all your strength holding them out horizontally. Once you had cancelled the twists you then had to take care of the next hazard, which was oscillation.
Oscillation always occurred when jumping from an aircraft, as you fell with the strop and static line pulling the chute out of the pack it would come to the last tie where it was connected to the centre of the canopy. The tie would snap and the unopened canopy would be whipped over your head by the slipstream from the engines, it would be filled with air with a cracking noise and you being at an angle would swing under and past it like a pendulum. To ensure a safe landing feet first we had to cancel the swinging motion by pulling our front of rear lift webs fully down to our chests and we held this position until we hit the ground, our elbows into our chests and our feet and knees together. By pulling the lift webs down to our chests we spilled air from the chute which cancelled the oscillation, we, of course, whilst swinging, had to assess which direction we were travelling, forwards or backwards, and pull our canopy down against the wind.
Unlike modern parachutes we had absolutely no control of the chute and would land forwards, backwards or sideways and do the best you could, once down on the ground if there was a strong wind we would be dragged along the ground, we were trained to roll over onto our back and hit the quick release box to detach ourselves from the harness. Relieved of your weight the canopy collapsed, if it wasn’t too windy you could either lie face down and drag the rigging lines on the ground towards you and collapse the chute or run round the chute spilling the air from it.
In addition to the normal method of parachuting we also had to jump, on all operational descents, with a kit bag containing; weapons, ammunition, explosives etc. This kitbag had a hollowed out portion at the bottom to fit over our right boot and stood as high as our knee, it was fastened to the right leg by two straps, which could be released by a quick release pin. Coiled up on top of the bag was a 20 feet length of hemp rope running through a short pliable sleeve, one end of the rope was fastened to the kitbag the other was fitted with a clip for attaching to our parachute harness. We carried this kitbag by a handle fitted to the top, the maximum weight of the bag and contents was 54 pounds, walking out to the aircraft wearing full battle gear plus parachute and kitbag was no mean feat, climbing into the aircraft even more so.
We boarded the plane keeping to our previously detailed stick number, highest number first in and furthest up the aircraft. Once we had all sat down facing each other on our long row of sideways facing seats, in sequence starting from the highest stick number, we connected our static line, which protruded from the top of our chute, to the correct strop on the starboard side of the aircraft by a locking pin. All the strops were fitted with a “D” ring which had free run on a steel cable running the length of the cabin. Having connected our chutes we then had to fix the kitbag to our right leg by fastening the two straps, we then took the end of the rope, which was on top of the kitbag and clipped this to our parachute harness. Having carried out the pre check drill we were ready for the jump, the problem was lifting the weight of the kitbag with your right hand which also lifted your right leg and getting this into a swinging motion as you gallop down the cabin heading for the door. The plane is throttled back and swaying from side to side, your ears are popping with the altitude changes and you get to the wide open door, you give one final heave on the bag and yourself to exit the aircraft. With the opening of the chute you reach down and lift the sleeve in on hand and with the other pull the quick release pin for the straps and tip the bag off you foot, you lower the bag at a controlled speed by using the sleeve until it was finally swinging 20 feet below you, you then commence your normal landing drill for a safe descent. The only difference on landing was that the kitbag hit the ground first and this caused a bobbing of the chute before landing because the extra weight was taken off the chute.
The normal DZ (dropping zone) was usually a large, flat grass covered field for training purposes, in an operational jump, although similar types of area were chosen, many things could go wrong and often did. We were trained for various hazards, one of which was landing in water. Rivers, lakes and the sea have all taken toll on the Regiment. If landing in water, we had to disconnect our parachute harness using the quick release box, pull the leg straps free and then hold onto the chute by the lift webs then just before entering the water let go and fall clear of the chute which could drag us down as it filled with water. We were told that quite a few Paras had died in France when, in the semi darkness, they thought they were landing in the sea and carried out this drill, it was not the sea but a ground mist, they let go of their chutes at between 50 and 100 feet and plunged to their deaths.
If, on landing, we were heading for the branches of a very large tree we ignored the instructions of keeping our feet and knees together, instead we crossed our legs, if you didn’t, a large bough travelling at around 20 mph would not do you any good. If the chute caught in the top of a tree and we were jumping with a kitbag we could release the harness and descend 20 feet nearer the ground or swing in towards the trunk, if we didn’t, then it was hard luck.
To obtain our wings as fully qualified parachutists we had to complete eight jumps, three from a tethered barrage balloon and five from an aircraft, one of the jumps had to be at night and this would be from the balloon. On our first jump we were taken to a point on the Ringway Airfield where a barrage balloon was tethered to a winch, hanging underneath the balloon was a rectangular box, the bottom half made of steel and the top half consisted of a canvas roof and side panels. There was an open doorway at the end facing away from the mooring cable, the cage, as it was called, was resting on the ground. Four of us were detailed by our RAF Instructor, Cpl. McLean to climb aboard and he followed. We stood in the four corners of the cage and he stood in the doorway, we connected our static lines to the strops in the balloon and were then slowly winched up to our operational height of between 700 and 800 feet. There was a saying at the school of “seven up five down” this meant 700 feet up and 5 men down.
The balloon came to a jerking halt when the winch stopped running, we in the cage below swayed about then settled on an even keel. Our Instructor reminded us of our drill when jumping, then ordered the first man to the door, as he walked he changed the balance and the cage swayed for a short time. The pupil was then given further orders by the Instructor beside him who then shouted “go” and slapped him on his left shoulder, he suddenly disappeared and the balloon and its cage, relieved of his weight, jerked and swayed alarmingly. I was then called forward and stood in a jumping position in the open doorway, half the sole of my left boot was projecting in space, my thumb was in line with the fingers of my left hand outside the door and touching the frame, my right knee was bent and my right hand was clutching my trousers above my right knee, my head was held high and I was wearing a sponge rubber safety hat, which was used for all parachute training at that time.
I could see various buildings and little figures of men walking about, there were toy cars and lorries and little cart tracks through the grass. I felt no fear at this time as I was so busy concentrating on getting everything right. When the dispatcher shouted “go” I jumped with all my strength, the next minute I realised that by jumping hard the static line, which was at the top and back of me, had pulled me backwards and I was dropping like a stone, I fell in a horizontal position seeing the balloon receding very rapidly and my boots up in front of my eyes. There was a sudden jerk and a cracking noise like a sail filling with wind, I adjusted my leg harness after checking that the chute was fully open, I found what a beautiful experience parachuting was, it was absolutely silent, I was floating along as free as a bird with a wonderful view of the country. I had adopted my correct parachuting position by pulling down on my rear lift webs and was prepared for a forward right landing, as soon as I jumped I had to bring my left hand across my body to hold my right wrist until the chute opened.
As I have said there was this wonderful relaxing experience of floating, which turned in an instant to the ground rushing up towards me at breakneck speed. With a thud I hit the ground and went into a parachute roll, as soon as I landed I had to collapse the chute, I then folded the sides into the middle to the same width as the parachute pack, I then rolled the chute up into a bundle and plaited the rigging lines together whilst I knelt on the rolled up chute, I pulled the lines towards me, plaiting then coiling them until I had reached the lift webs and empty pack. The chute and rigging lines were then placed in the pack and carried back to the parachute store.
Although I was never shown the parachute packing hanger I understood that our returned chutes were hung up at full length to completely dry, they were then stretched out full length on very long tables where every bit was checked for damage, if still in good condition they were then repacked ready for us to use again. All the packers were women serving in the WAAF, we, of course, had to have absolute trust in their work and records will show that the failure rate of chutes due to a fault in packing was very low, all parachutes have a number and this is recorded on a form filled in by the parachute Instructor or Stick Commander, this gave your rank and number, weight, number in stick and parachute number. This meant that any fatality and the chute could be traced back to the person who had packed it from records kept by them.
We understood that in the event of a parachute failure the whole group of WAAFs on that particular shift would be sent on a Parachute Packer’s course, no one would be singled out for blame.
Being men we of course had Regimental songs like, “I’d like to meet the WAAF who packed her knickers in my chute, as I ain’t going to jump no more” the last verse began with “They scraped him off the tarmac like a lump of strawberry jam and he ain’t going to jump no more”
Parachute training is very dependent on the weather, if the wind was too strong then a jump would be cancelled, you obviously can’t train people whilst they are in hospital. As far as I remember we were pretty lucky and went through our course in the time scheduled.
My second jump was in the afternoon from the balloon, none of us were looking forward to it as the first time we did not know what to expect, now we knew that we would fall 150 feet on our backs before enough air pressure was generated to fill our canopies, everyone hated balloons, it was far better to jump from aircraft. We were told parachute jumping was taking place all day long with various instructors having been allocated their own group of trainees. On the morning of my second jump a rumour spread round the camp that someone had been killed about an hour before when his chute failed to open when he jumped from the balloon, we were a bit uptight about this and asked our NCOs, they told us that this was one of the things that went on with someone starting a rumour just to upset everyone.
We were taken to the jumping site on the airfield that afternoon, we were winched up in our cage after carrying out the same drill as our first jump. The Instructor, Cpl. McLean, called me to the door as the first to jump, I walked across the floor as the cage swayed with the movement and stood in the exit position ready to jump. I was waiting for him to give me the order to jump, instead he told me to look down at the ground and pointed out a very small square of green canvas off away to the left of the balloon, he then told me that that was where the man whose parachute had failed to open had been killed. He then shouted “Go” and thumped me on the shoulder and I was gone, it was a replica of the first jump with falling on my back and watching my feet, this time I did have a churning in my stomach because of the sheer drop I knew I would experience.
The third jump was to be by being flown to the DZ at Tatton Park in Cheshire in a Dakota aircraft. We boarded the aeroplane at Ringway after having been given our stick number by the Instructor, the highest stick number boarded first followed in sequence down to the lowest number and nominal stick commander no.1. We sat on a row of metal seats in the form of a bench running down each side of the aircraft, we were ordered to connect up our static lines from our chutes to the strops connected to the steel cable running the length of the starboard side of the aircraft. As we neared the DZ we were told to check equipment, we stood up in line in the centre of the cabin, no.20 checked that he was connected to the furthest strop and that his static line was clear of his lift webs, no.19 checked no.20, who did the same for no.19. This in turn went on right down the aircraft to no.1. Running along the ceiling of the cabin was a wire which you could hold on to steady yourself, the RAF dispatcher, who was giving the orders, stood by the open door wearing a harness connected to a strop which would prevent him from falling out or being pulled out of the aircraft.
The dispatcher shouted “Tell off for equipment check”, the last one in the stick shouted back “20 OK” and so on until we reached no.13 who shouted “12a OK”, this continued down to no.1 who shouted “ 1 OK, Stick OK”, this told the dispatcher that everything was clear for jumping. We had been told on boarding that we were in fact jumping in sticks of 5 for training purposes so we knew by our numbers which group we would be in as the aircraft circled the DZ dropping us in turn.
By the open door of the aircraft was a box with red and green lights, when the pilot throttled the engines back and descended to about 800 feet on his approach to the DZ he switched on the red light, when he received a signal from the ground that he was in the right position he switched on the green light to commence jumping. The RAF staff on the DZ had released smoke flares to enable us to judge the strength and direction of the wind and make allowances to ensure we landed in the correct place.
Up in the aircraft we saw the red light come on and the plane was swaying from side to side, dipping one wing then the other. The dispatcher shouted “Red on, stand to the door”, no.1 in the stick then stood in the open doorway in exactly the same manner as we did from the balloon, and the other four in the stick shuffled up close behind him. The green light came on and the dispatcher shouted, “Go” and thumped him on the shoulder, he went. The dispatcher allowed a slight pause then thumped each one in turn pausing in between, the reason for this was that if you went too quickly your parachute could tangle with someonelse’s which would be curtains for you.
When it came to my turn I leapt out and the parachute seemed to open almost immediately instead of that stomach churning drop from the balloon, I adjusted my
harness after checking that the canopy was fully deployed, I was swinging like a pendulum and there was this wonderful floating feeling. The aircraft had gone and it was absolutely quiet, suddenly I heard a voice with a very educated type of RAF accent coming from the ground, if it had been coming from above I would have been worried! He shouted “no.1 pull down on your rear lift webs now”, he called to all of us in turn making sure that we carried out the correct procedure, if I remember correctly I was told to pull down on my front lift webs as I came in for a backwards landing. We all, of course, had to spill air from our chutes to correct the oscillation, I made a pretty good landing as did the others, the aircraft came back again and five more of our group jumped out. I heard the voice again shouting instructions as they floated down and saw that there was an Instructor standing by some equipment which had a load speaker on top and he was standing there with a microphone in his hand shouting as they floated down. One of the stick didn’t seem to want to land and stayed floating along at the same altitude until the others had landed, he had been caught in a thermal which delayed his descent.
We only did one jump a day and I think the fifth one was the night jump from the balloon at Ringway, apart from it being pitch black with just the odd light showing on the ground, I did not find it very daunting. I jumped clear and after the chute had opened I looked up to check it, but of course it was invisible, I pulled down on my rear lift webs and adopted the landing position, peering down into the darkness. I suddenly saw a darker mass rushing towards me, I tensed myself for a landing that wasn’t, relaxed, then hit the ground with a bump.
On all the jumps at Tatton Park we rolled up our chutes and carried them to the assembly area where lorries were waiting to take us back to Ringway, always there was a refreshment van belonging to the WVS, the dear ladies served us with a free cup of tea and a cigarette and boosted our egos by telling us how marvellous we were.
I think it was my sixth jump, on the morning of which, I woke up feeling very ill, the symptoms were very like influenza and I had no strength at all. I couldn’t report sick as this meant that I would be back squadded (the course would carry on without me) I would lose all my friends and comrades. This is one of the things that you find in the army and is beyond price, comradeship. They helped me get dressed and onto the transport and later, how I boarded the aircraft with the weight of the chute I will never know. I can’t remember what position I was in the stick but I remember I did not have the strength to jump, I stepped out and immediately felt the bottom of my chute hit the floor of the aircraft, I was tilted forward and hurt my left arm as I was thrown against the fuselage. I went to look up and check my canopy and found my head was forced down onto my chest, I reached up to the back of my neck and found the lift webs were twisted together, this was why I couldn’t raise my head. I felt which way they were twisted and then bicycle pedaled in the air to unwind the twists.
Having freed the twists, I looked down and found that I was badly oscillating and near the ground. I could see the RAF Instructor standing by his loudspeaker equipment with, I believe his microphone in hand, staring up at me, he appeared and disappeared as I was swinging and dodging about. The next minute I hit the equipment with my left rear and crashed in a heap on the ground, there was no wind and the chute collapsed over both me and the Instructor and we had to fight our way out. He was not a happy man, he gave me the biggest bollocking for not exiting the aircraft in a proper manner. I was very lucky that the twists were at the bottom and not the top of the rigging lines or the chute would not have opened, also, with the twists in the rigging the canopy area was reduced increasing my descent speed. The strange thing was that whatever I was suffering from had disappeared although I wouldn’t recommend this cure to anyone!
The next jump was in sticks of twenty with kitbags, this was pretty much the same as I have previously described except that I will never forget being in the last half of the stick trying to run down the fuselage, with my right hand lifting this very heavy bag and my right leg which was attached to it and the literally chucking myself out of the door.
On the completion of my eight jumps I was presented with my wings, the Army, being what it is, says in my AB64 “Granted Parachute badge 30th November 1945”. In addition to the cloth wings, to be sewn onto the top part of my right sleeve, I was presented with a silver brooch by the GQ Parachute company to say that I had tested their chutes, and they worked!
We all had a very big celebration on getting our wings, no longer were we “wingless wonders”, we could now say to other soldiers, which we often did, “Get some slipstream service before you talk to me”, you could guarantee many a fight in a pub with this remark, later, when we returned from the Middle East, we would add “And get your knees brown”.
Once you had qualified as a Parachutist you were given, I believe, an extra 2 shillings a day for your qualification. In today’s money-10 pence.
Very often in our barrack rooms in the evening, perhaps confined to Camp for some reason or other, we used to rely on “Sing Songs” for entertainment. I have written down three of the Parachute Regiment songs that we used to sing, the word “Tatton” refers to Tatton Park in Cheshire which was the Dropping Zone for Ringway airfield.
To the tune “Mountains of Mourne”
Oh Mary this Tattons a wonderful sight, with Paratroopers jumping by day and by night
They land on potatoes and barley and corn, and there’s gangs of them wishing they’d never been born
The say they would rather bale out from the moon, than stand at the door of that ****** balloon.
To the tune “Bless 'em all”
They say there’s a Whitley just leaving Ringway
Bound for old Tatton Park
Heavily laden with Parachute troops
Bound for the jump they adore
There’s many a soldier that’s jumped once before
There’s many a one that’s had a fall
But you get no promotion if your chute doesn’t open
So cheer up my lads Bless 'em all
Bless 'em all, Bless 'em all
The parachute packers and all
Bless all the sergeants and their paratroops
Bless all the packers and their static chutes
‘Cos were saying goodbye to them all
As out of the Whitleys we fall
You’ll get no promotion if your chute don’t open
So cheer up my lads, bless 'em all.
To the tune “Red River Valley”
Oh, come sit by my side if you love me
Do not hesitate to bid me adieu
But remember the poor paratrooper
And the job he is trying to do
When the red light goes on we are ready
For the Sergeant to shout “Number one”
Though we sit in the plane close together
We all tumble out one by one
When we’re coming in for a landing
Just remember the Sergeants advice
“Keep your feet and your knees close together
And you’ll reach mother earth very nice”
When we land in a certain country
There’s a job we will do very well
We will fire old Goering and Adolf
And all those blighters as well
So stand by your glass and be ready
And remember the men of the sky
Here’s a toast to the men dead already
And a toast for the next man to die.
On the 27th December 1945 we arrived at a new camp at Knaresborough which I believe consisted of nothing but old Nissen huts. The only thing I can remember about this camp was that having been allowed out in the evenings, some of us decided to go to the local cinema. In Oxford, and as far as I knew everywhere else, the cinema programs were a continuous performance, you walked inside in the middle of a film and sat there until the film came round to where you came in. We paid our money half an hour before the end of the main picture, and when the film ended everybody left except us, we were then told to leave as they only did separate performances. We complained that we had not been warned about this and were ejected, we thought that this was pretty poor treatment as we received very little money at the time. Knaresborough was a dirty word for a very long time.
Fortunately on the 2nd January 1946 we were moved to another Holding Battalion camp near the village of Piddlehinton near Dorchester in Dorset. Here the discipline was not so strict now that we were fully qualified Paras, the training was just as tough with route marches and PT in our vests and shorts in the middle of Winter. We turned out for the morning parade wearing our greatcoats and woollen gloves and carrying our rifles, you always carried your rifle. You were told that your rifle was your best friend, time and time again. It had to be looked after like your wife, one day your life could depend on it. Unless there was a new issue, you had the same rifle all the time you were in the army, Every weapon had a serial number and this was listed on your records. Frequent inspections were carried out at any time by both Officers and NCOs, they peered down the barrel as far as the breach mechanism where the bullets went up the barrel, you had to put your thumbnail there to reflect the light. A dirty weapon and you were on a charge, usually meriting 7 days CB (confined to Barracks), this meant reporting to the guard room at 6 pm every evening and being given any dirty job they chose to give you, Saturday and Sunday were all day fatigues.
As I said we turned out on parade every morning with a Sergeant in charge, sometimes the Company Sergeant Major would appear and give us drill instruction, I can well remember us standing there in the freezing cold with the frost hard on the ground. He stood in front of us and slowly, with great deliberation, said “ Take those f******* gloves off”, we took our gloves off and our hands got colder and colder against the cold metal of the rifle, there was a clattering noise as a rifle fell from the frozen fingers of one of the Platoon. “Fall in two men” the Sergeant Major barked, the unfortunate was then doubled off to the Guardroom on a charge of dropping his rifle.
We went on the rifle range, which gives you your only chance to improve the accuracy of your shooting and to make sure that the weapon is accurate and zeroed to your eyesight. If you are a reasonable shot all your hits on the target will be in a small group, if they are in the centre of the bull, then you have perfection. If the group was some distance from the bull, higher lower or on one side or the other then the Company Armourer, who accompanied us, would adjust the sights of the weapon until we had the accuracy we required.
On one of these practice shoots we were all sitting on the grass in front of the “Butts” as they were called waiting for our turn to move forward and take the positions of those that were shooting. I suddenly felt a violent blow to my forehead which really hurt, I started mouthing off to those round me accusing them of throwing stones, they all denied this strongly. I felt about in the grass just in front of me where I had seen something fall immediately after the blow, I picked up a .303 bullet of the type that we were using, it was split open down one side and was still warm. I showed this to the Sergeant, as it was obviously a ricochet from the Range, we all moved back to a safer position. Despite the jagged side of the bullet it never left a mark on my head.
When we were on Route Marches there was usually a stop every half-hour, the Sergeant would say that everyone could smoke if he could smoke, there was an immediate rush of cigarettes proffered to him and most people lit up. We had to lie on our backs with our feet up in the air to allow the blood to drain back from our feet into our bodies, or so we were told. When I see adverts today showing fly killer sprays and the flies with their legs twitching in the air as they lay on the ground, it always brings this to mind.
One day we were called on parade and told that there had been a riot at the Army Detention Centre at Shepton Mallet in Somerset, we were placed on standby then on the Sunday we boarded our Bedford 3 tonners and were transported to the village of Street in Somerset. We were off loaded and told to stay in the village until further ordered, most English villages are pretty dead on a Sunday and Street was no exception, there must have been about 50 of us there just wandering around. We heard from someone, no doubt a villager who wanted to get rid of us, that just up the road was the village of Glastonbury which had a cafe that was open on a Sunday. We understood that one village more or less joined into the other so a few of us decided that it would be an honest mistake if we accidentally found ourselves in Glastonbury. The group I was with hadn’t been there very long and were still looking for the cafe when we heard from some villagers that our officers were there and hunting for us, we went across several people’s gardens, ran round the corner of a house and smack into them, they took our AB64’s and sent us back to the village of Street.
The next morning I appeared on OC’s orders on a charge of disobeying a lawful order and being out of bounds, I was stood outside the office in the usual manner with the other offenders, we were then marched in one at a time at a speed and in a manner which is hard to describe, being bellowed at by the CSM “Left, right, left, right” in almost a gabble. You shoot through the door almost skidding over with the sharpness of the turn and brought to a halt in front of the desk where the Officer is sitting, you stand there as rigid as a ramrod, quivering with fear and breathless from the violent exertion. The charge is read out to you and the Officer asks if you have anything to say, you open your mouth to say something and you feel the CSM’s stick rammed into your back, he says in a tone full of malevolence “Shut up”, you remain silent, the Officer says “168 hours detention”. Once again you are marched out at high speed and handed over to the Regimental Police, I was trying to work out how long 168 days was as I had been frightened and confused with what was going on, I was then told that it was hours not days and managed to work out that seven times 24 hours was 168 hours, how complicated can you get!
I spent the next week being locked up in a cell with five others all having to bone our boots and polish and clean our kit to standards to standards previously unheard of. During the day we “doubled” everywhere, cleaning out the lavatories, heaving coal, scrubbing floors etc. It was often said in the Army that you were not a proper soldier until you had been in detention, if so, I was now qualified.
A strange thing about the Army is that when Officers ask you a question, such as in the dining hall when you are having a meal “Is everything alright?” or “Is the food ok?” You open your mouth to tell them how awful it is or the cook would make a good mechanic and a stick is poked in your back and you hear those words “Shut up”. The Officer goes on his way knowing what’s going on but not in the least bit interested.
When you had finished your parades for the day you had to do your washing and ironing, we always had a long table and a plain electric iron provided. We pressed our trousers by soaking our handkerchief in water and then pressing hard on the creases, some used to smear soap down the inside of the crease and this gave a knife edge effect to the crease. This method was subsequently banned when someone on Parade had his trousers split wide apart along the creases, the soap had rotted the material over a period of time.
Our backpack, pouches, anklets and belts, together with the webbing, had to be “Blancoed” every day to keep it clean, The Blanco was in various shades of khaki green. We used no. 103, which was a solid block of chemicals, we wetted a brush, rubbed over the block, then scrubbed our kit with it. When it dried it made everything clean and smart.
There were brasses to polish and boots to clean, then you took out your “Housewife”, which was a roll of material with pockets, this contained sewing and darning needles, wool and thread, spare buttons and a pair of scissors. There were no man-made fibres about so we were constantly darning holes in our socks, this caused bumps in the socks which in turn caused blisters.
Fortunately when we were in camp we had a battledress uniform made of denim material which we wore most of the time for dirty work and no one worried about the ragged state they used to get into. I can remember queuing up for the cookhouse with my mug, knife, fork and spoon, the queue was very slow moving and everyone was getting fed up, someone lit the ragged end at the back of someone’s trouser pocket. We watched it very slowly burning its way upwards until the wearer became aware of the heat on his posterior, the yell as he pulled his trousers off was thought to be very funny. If you went to bed early in the Barrack room someone coming in the worse for drink would spot your foot projecting from the end of your blankets and would give you a “hot foot” with a lighted match resting between your toes, the subsequent acrobatics and bad language of the sleeper was a source of entertainment.
We had no radios and had not even heard of television, we spent most of the time we had spare going to a cinema or various Public houses in Dorchester. At the weekend we used to travel further afield to Weymouth where there was a very nice White Ensign Club, this has really for the Royal Navy, but was open to all members of HM Forces.
Apart from the training I have already mentioned we had lessons, including practice on Amatol plastic explosive with various types of fuses, slow and fast burning and electric. Hand grenades with four and seven second fuses, in various war films you will see someone take out a hand grenade from where it was stored in a wooden box, pull the pin and throw it, and off it goes with a bang. In real life the grenade had a screw base plate which you had to remove, you them inserted a pliable fuse with a detonator at each end, one went directly into the explosive and the other end under the firing pin, this pin was held away from the detonator by a small handle which is locked in position by a retaining pin. When throwing, you held the handle against the bomb and remove the retaining pin. When the bomb is thrown the handle, which is spring loaded, moves outwards allowing the firing pin to hit the fuse detonator, this burns for the required 4 or 7 seconds and then ignites the main detonator and the bomb explodes.
We also practiced with a phosphorus grenade which was shaped like a Brasso tin of that era; long and round with a screw top. The top was made of bakelite and when removed revealed a tape with a lead weight wound round inside, you held this weight tightly against the tape and threw it at your target. As the tin went through the air the lead weight unwound the tape allowing a detonating pin to be released from its safety position. The bomb immediately exploded on contact with any object and sent a cloud of burning phosphorus high into the air, this settled and set fire to anything it came into contact with.
We had training with a fighting knife, learning various methods of killing ones enemy silently and quickly, the same thing by just using your hands.
We practiced firing a 2 inch mortar with both smoke and high explosive bombs, and that most awful of all weapons, the PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti Tank). This was a heavy, cumbersome thing with a tee shaped butt, the front half looked like a short piece of metal guttering and you had to lie on the ground with your feet pressed against the butt and pull the rest of the weapon towards you to set the heavy spring, this was a real effort. Once the spring was locked you fused a bulbous shaped bomb with a tail and placed it inside the guttering and pulled it back towards you until it was in the firing position. There was a terrific thump into your shoulder caused by the recoil of the weapon, and the projectile sped off, visible all the way, to its maximum range of about 100 yards. I think anyone who had the courage to fire one of these at an advancing tank at that range deserves a medal because if you missed, as I said before, the flight of the missile was visible and the crew of the tank would know the spot where it came from.
Whilst I was at Piddlehinton Camp I was awarded my marksman badge (crossed rifles) and Bren gun badge (laurel leaves around a Bren gun) the latter was a light machine gun which was carried by every section. We were informed that we were being posted to Palestine where the 6th Airborne Division was currently serving, we were to be replacements for those being demobbed as there number came up, and of course those killed or wounded by Jewish Terrorist activities.
We were given all sorts of inoculations against Typhoid, Typhus, Cholera etc. And I think we all suffered greatly with sore arms for about a week. We were given embarkation leave, and knew that it would be a long time before we saw our loved ones again. They all knew from reading the newspapers about the soldiers and Palestine policemen who were being murdered by the Jews that they had rescued from concentration camps, after fighting across Europe and Africa. The worst atrocity was the sleeping soldiers murdered at Tel Aviv bus station, they were in their sleeping bags, unguarded, not expecting trouble. They were all shot as they lay asleep, some of them had been in the battle at Arnhem, and this was their reward.
At the end of our leave there must have been many a tearful farewell as once again we left our mothers, wives and girlfriends to return to Camp and then into the unknown.
The Medloc Route to the Middle East
On the 24th May 1946 we left Piddlehinton Camp in Dorset and were taken to Dover, we boarded a cross channel ferry and landed in the town of Calais in France. I would think that this was the first trip abroad for all of us and of course this was very exiting and for most of us it was also our first trip in a boat. We stayed at a transit camp for the night and were allowed to wander around the town in the immediate vicinity of the camp. It was very interesting with lots of war damage still visible, quite a few staggered back to Camp full of French wine and boasting of their sexual exploits with the French women in exchange of a bar of toilet soap or cigarettes, these they could sell on the Black Market to obtain food for their children. It must have been really dreadful for the people over there immediately after the war, but that was all that I saw of it.
On the 25th May we boarded a troop train which was to take us to Toulon in southern France, the seats on the train were just plain wood, not like the upholstered seats of our old Great Western Railways. There was a luggage rack made of netting above the seats and the carriage was all separate compartments. Our kitbags were stowed in the luggage van and all we carried was our equipment including a full water bottle, I think we must have left late in the day because I can remember some of us slept in the luggage racks and others on the seats or floor.
The next morning the train stopped, probably in some sidings somewhere, we got our water bottles out and put a small drop in our mess tin and had a shave, we swilled this out and put some more in to have a wash and them found that our towels were in our kitbags. We dried ourselves with our handkerchiefs which we then swilled clean with water. We went along the line to our field kitchen which had been set up, the meal went into the large mess tin with a film of soap and whiskers and tasted awful, the small mess tin was used for tea and this was ok.
We eventually arrived at a transit camp at Hyeres near Toulon. Once we had fixed up our sleeping quarters we were free to roam round the town within the vicinity of the Camp. One of the group who had been wandering around the town asked us if we were interested in watching an exhibition at a nearby brothel, he had negotiated with the Madam and the cost was so many Francs per head. During my period in the Army I had been made to attend many lectures, complete with photographs, of the dangers of contracting VD, brothels were out of bounds to servicemen because the prostitutes in them were highly likely to have the disease, the photographs they showed of some men in the advanced stage of Syphilis were enough to put anyone off sex for good. The strange thing about the Army is that having made brothels out of bounds they then show you where they are by painting a circle with a cross on them. I had only a short time before served 7 days detention for “being out of bounds” and if I was caught again I would be on the same charge again plus that of “being in a place of ill repute”. It was difficult being the only one to drop out so I agreed and we all went into the back streets to an Estaminet or French pub. We walked in and I was accosted by a very attractive French girl wearing a low cut white blouse and a very short white skirt, she cupped my face in her hands and wrapped her right leg around me. “You love me johnny?” she said with a very seductive French accent, I didn’t really know where to put myself as I was flushed with embarrassment, our leader spoke up and said that we had already made a deal with the Madam and asked where we were to go. We were taken upstairs to a very large room full of drapes and very old fashioned sofas and chairs, there was thick carpeting on the floor and the room was lit by chandeliers. There was a heated discussion between the Madam in French and our organiser as apparently she was trying to raise the price, at one stage we all got up to go which settled the argument very quickly.
I sat there waiting for the man and woman who were going to give the exhibition to appear, through the door came two very beautiful girls, completely naked, with firm high breasts, I had never seen a naked female before and here were two of them! They kissed and cuddled and massaged each other making strange loving noises in French. One of them produced a large rubber penis which she strapped to herself and using a condom they performed acts of sexual intercourse which most people would never have thought of. At the finish, after a change of condom, one of them simulated oral sex, at the end of which she suddenly spat on the floor and cried “explosion” in French, which had us rolling about the floor with laughter. The girls then took several of the chaps, who had succumbed to this stimulation and agreed on a price, off to their rooms. We sat there for some time until we heard a load cry of “Military Police”, we ran down the stairs and out of the back door into the garden, we then jumped and climbed over a series of walls and fences cheered on by a lot of waving French women hanging out of the windows of their houses, we were very fit and made our escape into the back streets and then back to Camp.
We were issued with KD (khaki drill) uniform, short sleeved shirts and shorts for daytime wear and long sleeved shirts and long trousers for evening wear. We were given a pouch made of oilskin to hang round our necks with a piece of string, this was to carry our AB64 (army identity book). Apparently in Egypt the streets were very crowded and people were jam packed on buses etc. The Arabs would slit open the bottom of your shirt pocket with a razor blade letting your wallet or AB64 drop into the palm of their hand and then off they went into the crowd. I haven’t previously mentioned this but we always wore two identity discs made of fibre and embossed with our name and number around our necks on a piece of string. We were also issued with hose tops which reached from our knees to our ankles and short socks, the join was covered by the anklets we normally wore.
Having packed all this extra uniform into our kitbags we were later taken to the docks at Toulon where we boarded the troopship Mataroa. We carried our kit bags on our shoulders up the gangplank and were then directed to whatever accommodation had been allotted to us, this was of course in the middle of the ship where there were no portholes. It was just a large area with large tables and forms, a few hammocks dotted here and there. It was very dim with only a few lights and very stuffy.
Of course it was not only the Paras who were boarding but troops from many Regiments and Corps. It seemed ridiculous that the War had ended the previous August after the dropping of the atom bombs by the Americans on Japan, yet here we were being sent abroad to fight an unseen enemy who, unlike the Germans, did not believe in the rules of warfare.
On the 29th May 1946 we sailed from Toulon on the next leg of our journey to Alexandria in Egypt. We spent most of the day sitting about on the deck or being seasick and we spent the night lying on tables or floors or being seasick. We laid on the deck with our heads over the side trying to bring up what wasn’t there, how many times can you empty your stomach? The sailors would come along asking if we would like some nice fatty pork and laugh at our replies as once again we retched again and again.
We survived this period and the next thing I can remember was a very strong smell, we looked out and there in the distance was the historic port of Alexandria. As we came alongside the quay we were surrounded by dozens of little boats mainly carrying a large variety of fruit, there were also leather goods and various souvenirs. Ropes were dangling from the ship and after a bit of haggling the rope was tied to a basket containing what you wanted and this was pulled up on to the deck, of course this wasn’t a very good system as obviously some people didn’t pay and there was a lot of shouting and abuse on both sides.
We disembarked on the 3rd June and were taken by lorries to the railway station where we boarded a troop train and were taken across the desert to Cairo. A couple of days before we landed we were told to change into our KD and as you can imagine, despite this, we were running with sweat with the heat of summer. We arrived in Cairo on the 4th June and were taken to a transit camp at Heliopolis, a district of Cairo. The camp consisted of very large tents and we were to stay there for nearly a fortnight.
After we had settled in we were allowed out of the camp and would walk around seeing the sights. We were continually pestered by beggars, many were blind and there were many children with twisted and distorted limbs, we were told that their parents had done this to them as babies to make it easier for them to beg. It was really dreadful and we found that if you were really touched by one and gave money to one, you were then surrounded by dozens of beggars who appeared from nowhere holding out their hands for the same amount of money, obviously we hadn’t much money ourselves and a near riot would ensue and we would have to make a hasty retreat.
Apart from the beggars there were those who wanted you to buy what they called “dirty photographs”, those who asked if you would like to make love to their sisters.
One I remember was selling Welsh, Scottish and English bananas, obviously some devious British wag had taught him these words in English. The worst were those who carried a bottle of liquid shoe polish and some brushes, if you refused to have your boots cleaned they very often threw the contents of the bottle onto your trousers.
We were taught a few words in Arabic to use to these people, I gather they were obscenities, so I will not repeat them here.
We were informed that we were to be posted to various battalions of the Regiment in Palestine and our names were read out on an alphabetical basis, mine being “D” went to the 6th Royal Welsh Battalion, my best friend who came from Oxford with me, John Ellis, went to the 3rd Battalion. We tried to get this changed, but to no avail. We were split up and said goodbye when we were taken by train to Palestine and then by lorry onto my new Camp at Tel Litwinsky and John onto his.
Our whole group had been split up and now we were posted to new Platoons and Companies amongst complete strangers. We had the flag of Wales, with its dragon, flying from the flagpole, we had a goat as a mascot, together with its handler called a goat major, and on St. David’s Day we were to parade and be presented with leeks!
I arrived at my new Camp on the 17th June 1946, after documentation the few of us who had been sent as replacements were shown to our 3 man half tents that were to become our living quarters. These were constructed of concrete blocks in the form of a square, they had a canvas top angled in from all sides with plenty of headroom. Our beds were planks of wood resting on cast iron supports top and bottom, about a foot off the ground. We were to sleep in our sleeping bags which they issued from the stores together with a couple of blankets and a pillow. There was an open doorway in one of the sides and the concrete walls had to be whitewashed frequently, the Army likes whitewash and it was supposed to dazzle the bugs and keep them away!
We were shown the lavatories, which, allowed for eight to ten “sittings” at a time, shaped like a hexagon, it was a raised concrete block with a hole on the top of each squared off portion. Each hole was covered by a wooden lid which lifted on and off, around the outside of the block was a continuous curtain made of sacking which overlapped at the entrance and exit. The bottom of this screen was ankle high so that you could walk around looking for a vacant space, if you found one you walked in past all the others sat there with their trousers around their legs, you lifted the lid at the vacant toilet and as you did, so some 50,000,000 flies zoomed out at high speed. If you didn’t allow for this it was as though your bum had been hit with a battering ram!
In our tents we also had mosquito nets which we had to cover ourselves with each night, they were mainly for protection from the sandflies which had a vicious bite and could give you sandfly fever which was similar to malaria. Your boots were kept on the floor by the side of the bed and you always had to shake them out in the morning because of the insects that crawled into them for warmth, or because they liked the smell of our feet! Later on I remember hearing a lot of shouting in the tent behind us, someone had found a scorpion in his boot. They poured a small stream of petrol in a circle around the insect which kept stabbing itself to death with the sting in its tail.
It was much better now that we were members of a Battalion, there was a sense of belonging, we had a history and it was our duty to keep up the reputation that these men had made. There were still a few of the “old stagers” left, they had fought in North Africa and down to Italy. A lot of the Battalion had been killed at a port in Italy when they boarded a ship to take them further up the coast, the ship hit a mine in the harbour and sank. Most of them were rescued, but this incident was considered to be very bad luck after what they had been through.
When the Germans fled from Greece a political group called ELAS tried to take the country over, our battalion was amongst those parachuted in into Athens to fight this group, apparently there was a strong wind blowing and this caused many casualties as they tried to land on the rocky ground, most were killed in street fighting until they took control of the situation and later handed the situation over to the Greek Authorities.
They were then sent onto Palestine, only to be ambushed and shot at by Jewish terrorists, mainly the Stern Gang, Hagana and Irgun Zvai Leumi. As you can probably gather, they had had enough and wanted to get home to see their families.
Not having radios and rarely seeing a newspaper we didn’t know what was going on at home apart from the odd clippings sent from British newspapers in letters from our loved ones. As time went on we began to realise why the old stagers that we were relieving had such a dislike for the Jews, they even had a song which went
“Now there’s Lady Astor, the pride of London town” – there’s a bit more and then something about “She runs the Paras down”. I gather that she was in Parliament running down the British Army.
In Tel Litwinsky Camp there were rows and rows of tents housing our battalion of probably 600 men. This varied all the time dependent on recruitment, as they were all volunteers and the demobilisation that was going on was causing a manpower shortage. There was a dining room and open air cinema with concrete benches as seats and a swimming pool. Around this very big area was a continuous fence which included the stores and motor vehicle park. The fence was made of five rolls of circular Dannet barbed wire, two rolls side by side, two on top of these and then one on top. This was of course a formidable obstacle and the camp was situated on a mixture of desert and scrub and had a clear field of approach in all directions.
Guards were posted at various points, and at night one of the unenviable posts was to man a searchlight, which was made of an old car headlamp connected to a 12-volt battery. You switched it on at regular intervals throughout the night and made a sweep of the countryside, there were several of these positions and you knew that anyone who aimed a bullet at the side of the lamp was likely to hit you. In those days we did not have bullet proof vests, I used to carry a steel shaving mirror in my left breast pocket, I don’t know if it would have been any good but thought it would.
The strange thing was that despite these defences we were not allowed to keep our weapons in camp, each Company had an armoury tent in which all the weapons and ammunition were stored. This was strongly guarded 24 hours a day, if you had to go on guard duty or out on some operation or other you drew whatever weapon your guard commander or platoon commander had told you to. This range included a Browning 9mm pistol, Sten gun, Bren gun, 2-inch mortar and grenades.
When we queried as to why we had to have our weapons locked up we were told various stories of how the Arabs were so clever that they could spirit anything away without being noticed, it was said that you could be on sentry duty alongside the middle of a long wall, lean your rifle against the wall, light up a cigarette, reach down for your weapon and it was gone! Like many others before me I didn’t really believe this but I later found it to be true.
Those of us who had recently joined the Battalion had to attend a lecture, I believe given by the Army Education Corps, on the reason why we had been sent to Palestine and the various factors surrounding this. We were told that Palestine, which was roughly the size of Wales, was a Protectorate of Great Britain and the population consisted of 90% Arab and 10% Jews. Most of the Arabs and Jews living there were descendants of those who had been living there since Biblical times, the country had been occupied back to the time of our own King Richard 1 and the crusades against the Turkish Otterman empire.
In 1917 Lawrence of Arabia persuaded the Arabs to rise up against their rulers, the Turks, and it is said that he promised on behalf of the British government that they would be given their independence if they defeated the Turks. As is well known in many famous exploits the Turks were eventually defeated in the Middle East with the aid of the Arabs, however at the end of the 1914-1918 war the Middle East was split up between the French and the British who were given Protectorate rights by the League of Nations. The Arabs were understandably upset about this and staged several minor revolts most of which were put down in the 1920s and 1930s by the Royal Air Force bombing their villages.
The Arabs lived mainly in small villages and towns with Jerusalem as the capital and the Jews lived in settlements and kibbutz with their major town being Tel Aviv. The Palestine Police, who were mainly British, were responsible for keeping law and order backed up by small contingents of the British Army.
Jewish Zionist elements from America were trying to take Palestine over and turn it into a Zionist state, their main weapon was the thousands of displaced Jews found in concentration camps and now spread throughout Europe. Most of these European countries did not want to feed and house these displaced persons, as they were themselves suffering from food and housing shortages. The Palestinians neither wanted any more Jews, who had been their enemies for many years, being brought into their country nor did they want to be taken over as a Zionist state.
The surrounding Arab states of the Middle East shared the views of the Palestinians and did not want a Jewish state in their midst. Another factor was the oil fields controlled by the Arabs and on which we relied on for our oil supplies. Illegal immigrants were smuggled from Europe by ships which anchored just off the shore and unloaded their human cargo.
We were told that the two main terrorist groups, the Irgun and Stern gang, were operating by placing thin wires across the roads after the curfew time to behead motor cycle dispatch riders and occupants of jeeps who had their windscreens lowered to allow a forward firing machine gun. They also used box mines joined together so that they could be dragged across the road from the cover of the orange groves, whichever way you swerved you were bound to hit one. They had also developed magnetic mines which would explode if you went near them wearing or carrying any metal, it was thought that even the metal studs in our boots might cause them to detonate – none of us wanted to find out!
At a later date we were informed of how they had destroyed a Police Station by fixing wheels and tyres to the ends of a large oil drum that was filled with explosives. They placed this on the back of a flat bed lorry and as they drove slowly past they removed the chocks holding it in position, the drum rolled off the side of the lorry, bounced over the barbed wire perimeter fence and came to rest against the wall of the Police Station where it exploded. I believe a number of Palestinian Police were killed and the building was completely destroyed.
In addition to all of this there was the usual sniping, shooting in the back and bombs anywhere. Jewish girls would give you the “glad eye” and invite you up to their room where you would be executed by a waiting member of one of these terrorist groups. In fact we were told that it was not a very friendly country to be in and we had to make the most of it. We had to treat both Arab and Jew equally no matter what the provocation, we were to respect their religions and we were not to enter their Mosques or Synagogues. Later our Padre was to accidentally find the largest arms dump found in Palestine hidden in a Jewish Synagogue. So much for Religion.
Shortly after joining the 6th Battalion we had to change from being a Private to being a Fusilier. We were issued with a black flash which was to hang from our back collar, this was to do with the pigtails that the original Royal Welsh Fusiliers always wore as part of their tradition. Some time later we reverted back to being called a Private when the title was changed to the 6th Battalion (W), this was probably because there were too few Welshmen left serving in it. The black flashes were withdrawn and we were issued with red, white and blue lanyards instead.
The 6th Battalion was part of the Second Independent Parachute Brigade, the other two battalions being the 4th Wessex and the 5th Scottish, I believe that these two battalions were almost exclusively English and Scottish as ethnic groups. We had some Irish men from Ulster serving with us and during our various singsongs I later found out that they had been teaching us IRA songs, we hadn’t heard of this organisation in those days. The Welsh taught us “Saucepans Bach” and we retaliated by singing “ Shooting peas up a nanny-goats bottom” to the tune of Men of Harlech. This was all good fun and any new Welshman who joined was considered to have been captured when he came down from the mountains to get water. Despite the conditions, food, being away from our loved ones and the constant threat of violence, there was a wonderful sense of comradeship which is well known in the Airborne Forces.
The food was very poor and I can remember it was a hard-boiled egg every morning with slices of bread, the white of the egg was a pale green and the yolk was a darker green. The bread had been baked together with the weevils which had been in the flour, we were told they were all right but we used to pull them out which reduced our slices almost to crumbs. For dinner we usually had some kind of stew, this was followed by a ladle of orange segments floating in a churn of powdered milk.
As in all military camps we had the good old NAFFI, where you could get various things to eat along with toothpaste and brushes etc. I think I used to live on treacle tarts, the first time I went into the NAFFI at Tel Litwinsky I ordered a cup of tea with my tart and was given my tea in the bottom half of a glass bottle. The neck of the bottle had been cut off and the rim had been burred over by some means leaving no sharp edges, when you try to drink tea like this you realise why cups have handles. It was Hobsons choice, and that was that.
Later I was to find that, food wise, things could get much worse when out on operations. First you very rarely got anything. Second if you did get anything it was the same ingredients dished up either out of canisters or a field kitchen. You walked in a line with your mess tins extended, food was put in one and tea in the other. You walked back to where you were going to sit on the sand, a large Kitehawk would swoop over your shoulder from behind, grab the piece of meat out of your mess tin and up and away. If you weren’t holding onto the mess tin tightly it was dashed from your hand. If you did get to your eating spot you found that the swirling wind was depositing fine sand onto your food giving it a nice gritty taste. That and the flies, which were always with us, was all part of the eating ritual.
Inside the Camp, apart from the scorpions I have already mentioned, there were many different creepy-crawlies. The most interesting were the large black ants which could be seen carrying off matchsticks and cigarette ends to their nests. Later, in an Arab village late at night, I saw with the light from my torch a stream of these ants coming out of the earth in the front garden and marching under a shop door (one of the few that weren’t shuttered) to a sack of rice. They climbed into the top of the sack and came back down, each one carrying a grain of rice which disappeared down into the garden. I don’t think that the shopkeeper would have found much left in the morning!
Outside the Camp, in the sand dunes, were lots of baby tortoises, they were hard to spot as the colour of their shells merged with the sand. There was also snakes, but they usually kept well away and were more common amongst the rocks on the hills.
An Army Camp on active service has to be self-contained, the soldiers in the Battalion have to do everything. They have to supply electricity throughout the Camp, including emergency supplies with generators, water supplies have to be distributed and safeguarded, large quantities of food have to be supplied and, of course, transported, latrines have to be provided and maintained. The list is endless, including the number of men required on a 24-hour basis as Camp guards plus the Armoury Guards I have already mentioned.
It will be realised by what I have written that except for a pitched battle there are a limited number of troops available for the many operations they are expected to carry out when on anti-terrorist patrols of various kinds.
A few days after settling in we had drawn rifles from the store for “square bashing” and rifle drill. We just drew any weapon, there was no search to find our numbered allocated rifle. We did various movements until we were given the order “Open order march”, we had to port arms for inspection and were then given the order “Ease springs”. This meant operating the breech mechanism several times by using the bolt. The final part of the drill was locking the bolt and pulling the trigger. There was a bang and a bullet passed over the head of either myself or the chap next in line, fired by someone in the middle row behind me. The soldier’s rifle was checked and it was found that it contained a full magazine of live rounds, the soldier who had been issued with the rifle previously had failed to empty his weapon before handing it in. There was a big inquiry about this, but like most things we never got to hear what happened.
We heard sometime later of another incident where one of the M.T. drivers was having trouble with his Jeep which wouldn’t start. He put his loaded Sten gun on the bonnet whilst he used the starting handle, the engine started and the vibration triggered the Sten gun which fired four bullets into his chest – luckily he survived. We didn’t get the chance to be bored during the day as we were kept busy “Spud bashing”, this was where a number of us sat in the kitchen of the cookhouse surrounded by a mountain of potatoes, there was a large tin bath on the floor and we sat around it peeling spud after spud. This was of course one of the many chores to be done and was shared around the Platoon and Company. Washing up, cleaning ablutions and urinals, keeping the Camp clean and guarding the Camp were all jobs that had to be done. If there was time between these various tasks then there was always square bashing, rifle drill route marches and physical training. It was of course very hot and we spent a lot of the time stripped to the waist, we didn’t have any creams to put on so we burnt ourselves to a brown colour.
A very good thing about the Camp was the Arabs, we had a young lad named Abdul who would clean your boots and run errands etc. He could speak quite good English and we used to tease him a lot about his girlfriends. One of the other Arabs had a wooden box filled with ice and bottles of mineral water, I remember the first bottle I bought off him and how the ice cold drink went down my throat and stomach, I understood then why the Americans in England complained about our warm beer! Another had a little stall in which, with a little burner, he made fried egg sandwiches with no weevils or green eggs. There was a Dhobi Wallah who would do our washing for us for a small amount of money, it was fascinating to see him doing the ironing with an old flat iron heated on a spirit stove. He used to take a mouthful of starch from a bottle and then spray it over our K.D. shirts and trousers, everything was beautifully ironed with the creases in all the right places. Another one came around measuring our feet by getting us to stand on a sheet of brown paper and drawing round our feet, a week later he re-appeared with a pair of perfectly fitting brown leather shoes, they were not cheap on our pay, but the fact that I bought a pair proves how cheap, in fact, they really were!
I have previously mentioned the fact that we had a Camp Cinema in the open air. The films were black and white and showed up very well on a large screen, sitting there you would be constantly distracted by shooting stars crossing the beautiful clear sky with its myriad of stars. There would be an explosion in the distance, sometimes gunfire and the arc of a Verey light, you looked out into the darkness past the Camp and wondered if an attack was imminent and would you have time to draw weapons. I think we were always on edge for fear of the unknown. The cinema was our only entertainment and in winter, if it wasn’t raining, we sat on those cold concrete steps wrapped in the blankets that we had brought with us.
I kept a very small diary for most of the time that I was serving in Palestine extracts from which appear below;
19th June I was on the H.Q. Company guard operating a spotlight, the main part of the Battalion were conducting a search in Tel Aviv.
24th June we new arrivals were subject to a F.F.I. (Free from infection). This meant that we were lined up on a verandah in front of the medical centre, we were ordered to drop our trousers and lift our shirts and the M.O. came along looking at our genitals. He would sometimes have a closer look and use a pencil to lift up a part of someone, I’m not sure whether he had more than one pencil – I hope he did!
28th June we carried out searches on Tel Aviv, returning on the 1st July.
6th July I was made H.Q.Company Clerk, the reason was that I could type with two fingers -–the same as I am doing now 50 years later!
7th July a party of us were taken to an Arab village, El Jurra, for swimming and recreation, a journey of approximately 50 miles by lorry.
10th July most of the Battalion went to Nathanya leave camp for the day.
17th July there was a Jewish strike at Nathanya, all the Jewish owned shops shut.
21st July a small raid was made on our Camp at Tel Litwinsky, the attack was beaten off.
23rd July the King David hotel in Jerusalem was blown up, 91 people were killed and many more injured. Explosives were taken into the hotel in milk churns. Believed Irgun Zvai Leumi responsible.
30th July the Battalion, together with many other Army units, went to Tel Aviv in the early hours of the morning. All the streets were divided up into areas using rolls of barbed wire. Residents were taken to interrogation centres and after questioning those that had been released were taken back to their homes. Any suspects were taken to Tel Aviv bus station for further questioning. This was a major operation involving the screening of 102000 people resulting in 787 suspects being detained.
Presumably as H.Q. Company Clerk I ended up in a school in Tel Aviv together with a couple of officers and Palestine police as one of the many interrogation teams throughout the City. Any person who offered violence or was very difficult to the soldiers arresting them and taking them to the interrogation centre was daubed with Gentiam Violet, which the troops carried, we would see this on their arrival to us and we would write “goat” on a piece of paper which they then took to the exit door, they would then be sent for further more efficient questioning that we could give them. Queues of people came through the doors all day long. It was hit and miss screening as we didn’t speak their language and just checked their I.D.cards. If they had no ID then they were “goats”. If you heard them speaking English back in the queue and then suddenly couldn’t speak our language when we questioned them they were “goats’. All the people we thought were ok were given a piece of paper with “sheep” on it. They were returned as soon as possible to their homes.
We had been working for sometime when we were told that there had been a complaint from the Jews about being called sheep and goats. Luckily we were working in a school and were able to get hold of coloured pencils. We used pieces of paper, which we marked with a red or blue cross instead of sheep or goat. I was surprised at the number of American Jews we were getting, it was obvious that some of our former allies were not on our side either.
2nd August - We returned to our Camp at 16.30 hrs
Somewhere around this period we went on a range to practice with our 2-inch mortars. Fortunately we were firing smoke and not H.E. (high explosive) because of the following two occurrences;
We were stood in the desert about 10 yards behind those firing the mortar, we watched the bomb go up and realised that they had made no allowance for the strong wind that was blowing towards us, the bomb was blown from the angle it had been fired into a vertical position, it then turned over at the top of it’s trajectory and came heading down towards us. We scattered in all directions, not knowing where it would hit as the wind was having such an effect.
Two others were too quick for their own good, the loader dropped his second bomb down the tube before the first one had fired! Both bombs staggered into the air for a very short distance. If they had been H.E. there would have been an immediate explosion, wiping us all out.
12th August - I was promoted to local acting, unpaid, unwanted Lance Corporal and transferred to B Company. I didn’t know my typing was that bad!
20th August - A Company roadblock was attacked – no casualties.
29th August – Whole Brigade went to Latrun Detention Camp.
9th September – We were in an open-air cinema when a bomb went off nearby. The Camp “stood to” waiting for an attack. Sent to Tel Aviv to impose a curfew from 2330 hrs to 1500 hrs on 10th September. Bridge, signal box and office blown up. Several people shot including a sergeant from 7 Battalion.
The main thing that kept the chaps going through all these experiences were the letters from home. When the Post Corporal came round with his sack of letters everyone crowded around ready to answer when their name was shouted out, of course many were disappointed if there was none for them. Others would open their letters from their girlfriends only to find the all too familiar “Dear John” letter; this says that you are too far away and can’t take them out to the pictures etc and they’ve met someone else who can and so sorry but we will have to break things off. These were terrible letters to receive when you are soldiering in the sort of conditions that we were.
Morale was low at the best of times, as you read letters from home sometimes with cuttings from newspapers, these were usually Jewish propaganda saying how we were beating up the poor Jews after their experiences with the Nazis and that they were being robbed by us. We couldn’t believe that a Labour Party Government had sent us out here to live in very poor conditions with rotten food and the chance of being shot at or blown to bits by people skulking in the community and not wearing any uniform. I seem to remember Barbara Castle as one of the worst offenders. There were many of them and we wish we could have changed places with them.
We knew that there was considerable control of the press by the Jews through ownership, shareholding or advertising, this was below the belt and although we thought we were doing a good job of preventing war between the Jews and Arabs, we were being vilified by our own people at home.
At one stage we were ordered that we were not to load our weapons until fired upon, this was an order given to us so that we would not accidentally shoot any member of the Jewish community. There was uproar over this and we believe that we were supported by our officers, we called ourselves “BALTS” – British Army Live Targets. This order was fortunately rescinded before there was a possibility of mutiny.
Everytime we returned to Camp after any action which involved the searching of Jewish homes we were driven straight up to a piece of open ground in the Camp, here we stood in long lines with our haversacks and pouches laid out on the ground in front of us. Officers inspected the lorries and then our kit, this was done to try to disprove the allegations that wholesale looting was going on. There may have been the odd bit of thieving going on. I can only speak for myself.
When we were driven into any Jewish area we were subjected to a chant of “Kalionots” this apparently referred to us as “Red poppies with black hearts”. The Regiment, with no thanks to me had earned the name “Red devils” out of respect from the German troops that they had fought in North Africa. The Jews were referring to us as murderers, the only way we could retaliate was by singing verses of “My Yiddisha Momma” or “Abie my boy” and rubbing our noses, this seemed to have the desired effect – the hatred was mutual.
I had spoken to a number of Jews during various operations we were involved in and many were nice people, the problem was their fixation that it was their country and not the Palestinians, when I pointed out that the Arabs had not taken their country from them and were the same people living there as in Biblical times it did not seem to matter to them. Their argument was that the Middle East was a large area full of Arabs and that they could go there and live with them and leave the country to the Jews. I wonder if we had been told to leave the British Isles and live on the Continent as we were all European what our answer would be!
13th September - two bombs were exploded in Jaffa and one in Tel Aviv, we cordoned off and screened the area – 27 suspects were arrested.
22nd September – We raided a cafe in Rishon le Zion which was said to be a terrorist meeting place. We cordoned off the area and then went into the cafe, only the Proprietor and his wife were there drinking coffee. According to the Palestine Police the place was usually packed out with people, they had obviously been tipped off that we were coming. We heard that other Army units had the same problem with their raids.
28th September – I went with a party, led by our padre, to Jerusalem, we had to be fully armed as we visited various Holy places including the Wailing Wall.
30th September – A Jeep was shot up near Petah Tiqva and a NAAFI girl was shot in the leg. At the same place a CSM of the 3rd Battalion was trip wired off his motor cycle and shot dead as he lay on the ground.
1st October – We imposed a curfew on Petah Tiqva, other units were involved.
2nd October – We returned to Camp and found that the Sergeants lines had been raided, nearly all their possessions had been stolen. Palestinian Police were called in and they arrived with a Bedouin tracker. He was quite a sight in his flowing robes as he walked round and round in circles. He finally told us that several men and a donkey had made their way through our 5 rolls of Dannet wire defences and stolen the kit. He made off at great pace across the desert and through the scrub. He would occasionally lose the track and would walk slowly round in circles peering at the ground, he would then garble something in Arabic and off he would go at a fast pace. It was a good job that he lost the scent every so often as it gave us a rest. I was unarmed because of this sudden exodus from the Camp as were many irate Sergeants whose kit had been taken. Occasionally we found some of the Sergeant’s kit, which showed that we were on the right track. We had just entered an orange grove, following a track through the trees, when I suddenly heard a number of pistol shots. A huge Arab, with the biggest bare feet I have ever seen, came racing towards me, followed by the Bedouin tracker who was firing wildly at him. I threw myself flat on the ground to avoid getting shot and watched as they disappeared into the distance.
We found all the gear in a hut and the Bedouin returned with his prisoner. The other Arabs must have escaped. As I was the lowest rank I was told to make my way back to the Camp and arrange for a lorry to pick up the Sergeants and their stolen property. I took an entrenching tool handle from the kit to give me some kind of a weapon and made off in the general direction of the Camp. This took me some hours in the boiling sun plus having been enforcing a curfew all night I was somewhat exhausted. I remember walking through an Arab village where they all looked at me strangely, wondering what a lone Paratrooper was up to. I eventually came across a main road where I stopped a Jew driving a car and asked him to take me to Tel Litwinsky Camp. After the gear was picked up the Police would not let the Sergeants have their stuff back as it was needed as evidence, they were most unhappy.
The Commanding Officer was also most unhappy, as our defences had been penetrated by a number of Arabs complete with a donkey! No doubt he felt an ass. Anyway he had mines laid amongst the barbed wire along with a number of trip wires and flares.
8th October – “A” Company found several mines on a nearby road, two soldiers were killed when their lorry hit a mine near Jerusalem. Later, that night, we were all fast asleep when we were woken by a series of explosions followed by flares lighting up the sky. Then came the rattle of machine guns. The Camp was in complete darkness and our first thought was to roll out of our sleeping bags and onto the floor. All our weapons were kept in the Armoury tent, and here we were facing a major attack and completely defenceless. After getting over the initial shock, and I must admit I was frightened – things were always worse in the darkness without knowing what was going on, we made our way to the Armoury and there was a big queue outside. Before we could draw weapons we were told that a number of wild dogs, called “piards” had run through the barbed wire looking for food. They had exploded the mines and set off the trip wires and flares. The sentries had fired in the general direction of all this mayhem.
The next day a lot of men were busy repairing the barbed wire defences that had been blown to pieces, mines were not placed in the wire again.
Around about this time we were manning a roadblock, we had two overlapping rolls of Dannet across the road to form a chicane with a Bren gunner lying prone just beyond the wire. In the semi darkness a Staghound armoured car of the 3rd Hussars came along completely ignoring our signals to stop, they hit the wire and there was a shower of sparks as the wire wrapped itself completely around the wheels and chassis bringing it to a screeching halt. When it hit the wire it sent the whole length shooting forward, the Bren gunner ran for his life as the wire threw the gun up into the air from whence it came down and bent the barrel. It took the 3rd Hussars hours to free their Staghound with a pair of wire cutters – we ended up in a Court of Inquiry about the bent gun barrel.
I would think that most of us came down with a sickness called “Gippy tummy” or Sandfly fever. I suffered for years afterwards with Prickly Heat. I also had a poisoned arm from an insect bite but this was all part of living rough in the desert.
11th October – I was 2IC in a three-jeep patrol from Petah Tiqva to Sarona, in charge was a Sergeant from another Regiment who was temporarily attached to us as the demob situation was creating a shortage of men. On these patrols we had the windscreens laid flat so that we could rest a forward facing weapon on the flat bonnet. We had a piece of angle iron welded vertically to the front bumper bar long enough to cover the height of the windscreen, this had a nick in it to catch any wire that might be strung across the road. The Sergeant was in the leading jeep and I was at the rear.
We were heading for Petah Tiqva from Sarona along a road lined with orange groves, it was one of those moonlit nights with clouds scudding across the sky. The first jeep made an emergency stop, the second skidded broadside and we nearly hit the two of them. Of course we didn’t know what had happened and presumed it was an ambush. We all piled out of our vehicles and threw ourselves flat on the ground at the sides of the road in dry ditches. I lay there for what appeared to be hours as the moon went behind the clouds and emerged casting shadows with the branches of the trees. I know my heart was thumping as I lay there straining my eyes for any attacker. As no instructions were coming as to what to do I crawled up to the road where I found the Sergeant, who had been with the first vehicle. He pointed towards the middle of the road where there was a tall object similar to an artillery shell, he told the soldier with the radio to contact the Patah Tiqva Police Station and get the Bomb Disposal people out to have a look at it. We could get no answer on the radio so we tried firing red Verey lights to attract the attention of the lookout who should be on the tower of the station. There was still no answer with the wireless. We made a preliminary search of the vicinity amongst the orange trees and it appeared all clear with no sign of fuses or electrical devices. We moved the jeeps back and did not get too close to the object in case it was magnetically operated.
The Sergeant ordered me to take my jeep past the suspect mine and drive to the Police Station for assistance. I couldn’t drive, like most people at that time, and my driver had to volunteer. My old friend Tex Townsend decided to come as well in case there was an ambush further up the road. I can still remember reversing up the road and then the driver scrapping between the object and the ditch at about 70-mph in the dark as we shot forward heading for Petah Tiqva. It seemed that everyone was asleep there and that was why there was no answer on the wireless or recognition of our Verey lights. We spoke with the two Bomb Disposal men and they came with ill grace to our suspect mine. They walked up and shone their torches on the empty shell case, which it was, and kicked it over so that it rolled along the road. They then made various derogatory remarks about us.
12th October – There was an unfortunate occurrence in the Camp, we heard a shot from behind our tent, there was a lot of shouting going on so we ran outside to see what was going on. Inside one of the tents a young soldier was rolling about on his bed clutching his abdomen. He was crying out in pain and saying over and over again “ Oh my ................. guts” He was only wearing shorts and we could see on the left side of his abdomen a small hole about the size that a pencil would make, there was no blood showing. The medics came quickly and he was taken to Sarafand Military Hospital. The next day we were told that he had died, everyone was shocked and for days the Camp was very subdued by this terrible tragedy. We later found out that he had been shot by his best friend who lived in the same street back home, he was sitting on his bed opposite his friend cleaning a Browning 9mm automatic pistol when it went off. Presumably a round had been left in the breech.
20th October – An Inspector in the Palestine Police was murdered in Jerusalem. I have no details, as this is all I have written in my diary. The various things I have mentioned are only what had been happening in my area, other shootings and bombings were going on in other parts of Palestine which we only knew about by reading in the Mid – East Mail or the Palestine Post. We did not get these very often as we were rarely in Camp when the sellers came round.
I do remember reading about two Sergeants being kidnapped and hanged in an orange grove, there was also two officers kidnapped and flogged, the British High Commissioner was murdered and Major Roy Farran, who had great success against the terrorists, had a parcel bomb sent to his home in England. This killed his brother who opened it.
I think I must mention here the frequent dust and sand storms which swept the area, when we were out on ambush patrols all we could do was to put our handkerchiefs across our nose, mouth and eyes and bury our faces in our arms. The sand was very abrasive and was very painful on bare skin, afterwards your weapon was clogged with grit which stuck to the oiled parts. There was also miniature whirlwinds which zig – zagged their way through the Camp sucking up anything loose that you had left in your tent and taking it high into the air.
27th October – I went on a Section Commanders Course at the Petah Tiqva Training Centre. This was a very gruelling course mainly up in the hills amongst all the rocks. On the evening of the 31st October we were in the hills when we saw a flash in the distance followed by an explosion, this was followed by a fire which burned for some time. We found out next day that this was a Para Field Ambulance which had hit a mine, two occupants including the patients were burned to death, two others were badly wounded.
During this course it was my turn to lead a Section attack on a supposed enemy position. The system, in those days, was to get your Bren group of two men firing on the enemy position and making them keep their heads down. You then led your rifle section to a protected point nearer the enemy and opened fire. The Bren group then leapfrogged you and so on until the rifle section was near enough for grenade throwing and a bayonet charge.
On this occasion I had my Bren group firing down a gully at the target, I led my section round some very big rocks but was unable to get through to the firing position I wanted. The noise of the Bren gun was echoing everywhere amongst the rocks and I finished up at a point where I was going to lead the section across in front of the Bren gun’s field of fire. The Officer, who was in charge of the exercise, standing high up on a hill saw what was happening and shouted for us to come back but due to the noise we could not hear him. He fired a shot at a rock to the right of my head, part of which ricocheted into the back of my neck and whined off into the distance. I put my hand to my neck and looked round to see what was going on, I saw the Officer waving frantically for me to retreat and I did so, he then explained what had happened. Unlike the first bullet to hit me, this did cause a slight burn and raised a small lump which I had for many years.
16th November – The Course finished, I returned to my Battalion the next day, it was a new Camp at a place called Kefar Vitkin which was some 300 yards from the sea.
28th November – We were sent to Haifa to back up operations regarding a Jewish illegal immigrant ship with 2300 people aboard.
1st December – We had reveille at 0400 and went to a place near Kel Klite for a railway patrol. We were dropped off in groups of four along a stretch of railway line and each group was approximately 1km apart, we had to be in sight of each other so this distance might vary on some locations. Each group had a radio transmitter and an NCO in charge. I understood that the whole railway line through Palestine was being covered like this by various Army units. It was a single line railway and the leader of each group, together with one soldier, had to walk each side of the line as far as the next post checking for any sign of explosives. Culverts and drainage pipes had to be given special attention, if everything was OK we walked back to our post and, using the wireless informed our HQ that our stretch of line was clear. An armoured car with bogey wheels was then driven all along the line as a final test that the line was safe. After this the trains started running for the day whilst we kept watch for any attack.
We had been in our position for several hours on the edge of a cultivated area of a field of tomatoes when we saw two Arab children coming through the field towards us, and they seemed very exited. They jabbered away excitedly in Arabic pointing up the hillside to our right which was strewn with boulders. I could hear words like “Yehudi” and “Tommy Ga”, which I translated to being Jews armed with Tommy guns over behind Cpl. Hibberts section, the next group down the railway. I swept the area very closely with my binoculars and could see nothing untoward. I decided not to sound the alarm, as all that I was acting on was my translation of two young children who might even be playing some kind of joke.
I decided to take a fusilier with me and ordered the other two fusiliers to keep a sharp look out. I told them to sound the alarm if we had not returned in 30 minutes or they heard shooting. I instructed the soldier with me to keep 25 yards to my left, as this would ensure that we both could not get caught in a burst of machine gun fire.
I followed the two children up the hilly field making constant sweeps of the terrain mentioned by the children. Somehow the fusilier and I became divided by a low cactus hedge, this hedge suddenly turned left and he was unable to accompany me any further. I told him to make his way back to the group, tell them what had happened, and that I would return after checking the top of the hill a short distance ahead. I was carrying a Sten gun, and as you can imagine, this was cocked with the safety catch in the off position. At the top of the hill the land was flat stretching into the distance, in the shimmering haze I could see a number of white buildings which appeared to be a Jewish settlement.
I stood and scanned every rock and boulder leading from the top of the hill down towards Cpl. Hibbert’s group and the railway line. I put my binoculars away and made my way back to the post with the children happily chatting beside me. As we went through the tomato field they insisted on giving me tomatoes, they stuffed them in my pouches and inside my shirt, which was already wet with perspiration from my efforts. I didn’t want to upset them by refusing, as they might have done us a good turn, the armed men might have seen me coming and then withdrew to the settlement.
This I shall never know, all I did know was that ripe tomatoes are very squashy things, I had them running down inside my trousers and it was most uncomfortable!
I came round a corner to my post where I found a large contingent of my Battalion waiting, I was interrogated by several Officers who had heard the story I have written above, I was neither praised nor dammed and they went back to their holding position. Apparently as soon as I left my post and was out of sight the two remaining fusiliers decided that things were a bit dodgy and radioed in, I was then reported missing which resulted in a general turn out.
Our tour of duty finished with the coming of darkness, at points all along the line small groups were left for several hours lying in ambush for any terrorist who may come down to the line to lay explosives. This was done under the cover of darkness leaving the impression with anyone watching us that we had all returned to Camp.
3rd December – We carried out another railway patrol at a different place – nothing untoward happened.
6th December – We were again engaged on a railway patrol, we had our HQ in a wrecked train that was lying on its side at the side of the track. It had obviously been blown up and with the amount of rust, it had been there for some time. I believe this was at a place called Qalqiliya. We laid on an ambush afterwards and got quite chilled and wet with the heavy dew.
8th December – I was promoted to full Corporal which meant that I now had a permanent Section to lead and more money at the end of the week.
14th December – We were covering the Haifa Town Piquet from 1800 hrs. throughout the night.
16th to 21st December – We carried out intensive Platoon Training using a variety of weapons. We were using as a battle ground a large sandy area at the top of some cliffs bordering the sea, by having all our enemy positions situated to seaward we could fire our weapons without risk to anyone. On our battle plan we were heavily engaging the enemy position with machine gun and rifle fire when we heard the frantic hooting of a ship. We ceased firing and went up to the cliff edge and looking down we could see a small steamer, which judging by its wake, had been zig zagging. We could only presume that our spent bullets had been dropping in the sea near the ship. What it was doing so close inshore we didn’t know, we gave a friendly wave to the crew, which probably wasn’t appreciated, as it steamed off further out to sea.
During these days of training I led a Section attack which if successfully concluded was to be signalled by the throwing of a “77” phosphorous grenade. I threw this in front of me where it failed to explode because it landed in the soft sand, we were not allowed, for obvious reasons, to leave any exploded munitions lying around, I walked forward to where I could get a clear shot at it with my Sten gun. I changed the lever from automatic to single shot and fired at the grenade. There was a “whoomph” as it exploded and sent a large cloud of burning phosphorous high into the air. I suddenly realised that it was rapidly coming over the top of me, blown by a wind from the sea. I turned and ran for my life breaking all 50-yard sprint records.
I took a party outside the camp searching amongst the sand dunes for small tortoises, which we kept in a box for the best decorated dining hall competition for Christmas.
We put various decorations up in the dining hall and a large Christmas tree which we acquired from somewhere. We borrowed a number of different coloured glasses made from bottle bottoms from the NAFFI, these were placed in a half circle round the tree and on top of each glass, resting on their tums were our tortoises. Their little legs were going and on their backs we had painted letters to read “A MERRY CHRISTMAS”. We won the competition and later returned the tortoises to their homes. If anyone sees a large tortoise with a little coloured letter on its back, it was one of ours!
It is a tradition in the Army that the officers look after the men on Christmas Day. We had them come round with a mug of tea for us in bed apart from those on duty, they also served the food in the dining halls, which for a change was quite enjoyable.
26th December - We heard that the 4th and 5th Battalions had raided Nathanya, it was said that 82 plate glass windows had been smashed and 3 Jews injured, we didn’t know much more than this and obviously our officers did not want us to get involved.
28th December - We were all assembled together for a talk by the Brigadier about the riot in Nathanya. Apparently the Town Picquet was being run by the 5th Battalion on Christmas Day when a group of youths stoned them, causing injury to three of the soldiers. This, together with the usual hostile attitude of the townspeople, enraged the Scots and led to the riot the next day.
29th December - A Brigade Major was flogged in Nathanya, two sergeants in Tel Aviv and one in Rishon le Zion.
30th December - We went to Nathanya at 1600 hours to cordon off the town, the 5th Battalion went in and did the searching.
31st December - We took over the searching and I understand 100 suspects were arrested, we returned from Natanya at 1545 hours.
3rd January 1947 - We searched and screened Montefiore near Tel Aviv at 0530 hours. A 4th Battalion truck hit a mine on the way in, two soldiers were killed and four injured. A 5th Battalion jeep was blown up by an electronically controlled mine, two soldiers were injured. Our “A” Company was fired upon without casualties. Altogether 1500 people were screened resulting in 41 suspects detained.
5th January - Our Advance party went to Lydda on their way home to England.
12th January - Haifa Police Station was blown up by terrorists, four policemen were killed – two of them British and sixty policemen were injured.
23rd January - We left Kefar Vitkin at 1430 hours on our way to Haifa, we were billeted at No.103 Transit Camp in tents with no lighting.
24th January - Reveille was at 0500 hours and we went down to the dock area to guard the perimeter. 2nd Brigade then embarked on the troop ship Alcantara, there were some 3300 troops comprising of the 4th , 5th, and 6th Battalions of the Parachute Regiment, 127 Para Field Ambulance, RASC, REME, Royal Engineers, Royal Signals and RAMC.
It poured with rain all day but we had to keep very vigilant as the terrorist groups had threatened to get us before we left, a thorough search had been made of the ship and the hull was checked by divers in case of limpet mines.
We were the last to board the ship at 1630 hours; the ship sailed at 1730 hours for England and home.
At last we were on our way home on this very large ship packed with troops. Our accommodation was, as usual, in the middle and down the bottom; very stuffy with so many people crammed together. There were a few hammocks but most of us slept on the long tables or on the floor. Of course there were no portholes and very little ventilation, this was a troop ship and not a luxury liner. We had to carry life jackets around with us for two days and practiced lifeboat drill because of the terrorist threat to us.
The weather was so bad with the ship rising and falling and rolling from side to side that we were all seasick, you get to the stage where the ship being blown up and sinking would have been a merciful release.
On the 31st January we were sailing through the Bay of Biscay, sometime in the afternoon we spotted a burning ship off the starboard side. We crowded to the rail to get a better look, those with their box cameras to take photographs. The voice of the ships Captain came with some force over the Tannoy system, he said we were trying to roll his ship over and when I looked forward I could see that the ship was tilted over to starboard because of the weight of around 3000 troops suddenly moving to that side of the vessel. Everybody rapidly dispersed and the ship came back onto an even keel. I found out later that the burning ship was the “Sam Waters” registered in the United States of America.
As we neared England the weather was stormy and bitterly cold, we stayed off the Isle of Wight from 0900 to 1400 hours on 2nd February before eventually docking at Southampton. I don’t know what we expected but there were more people playing in the military band playing us a welcome home than anyone else! We had come from a much warmer climate into one of the worst winters ever to strike the UK; we were shivering with the cold.
The cinema news people were there, probable Pathe Gazette, and they complained that we were not looking happy to be back in England, I believe that there was sleet coming down at the time as we were all ordered to wave and cheer and smile for the benefit of the cameras. This was my first experience of media manipulation and it opened my eyes to a lot of things that were going on.
According to my diary we left Southampton on the 3rd February after a check by customs at 1000 hours, we arrived at our new Camp, driving through deep snow, at Blandford in Dorset at 1715 hours.
Blandford Camp, I believe, had been built by the Americans and was called a “Spider Network”. You could get all around the Camp either by corridors or covered walkways. It was certainly the best camp we had seen. We were all sent on disembarkation leave the following morning, making our various ways home to see our families.
My leave finished on the 19th February 1947 returning to Camp at 21.15 hours, it was bitterly cold with thick snow on the ground.
On the 27th February we were moved yet again to a new Camp at Ramsbury Park near Hungerford. According to my diary there was 4 inches of snow on the ground, no water, no latrines and no NAFFI. In fact it was a pretty grim place. I had to shave in melted snow; everything was frozen up with the bitterly cold weather. I managed to get some weekend leave and again quoting from the diary; “Got some water running at last, snowed hard all day, did some coal heaving, food very short, no YMCA van this afternoon, no bread for tea nor tea to drink, made some cocoa on the stove with my water bottle”.
I notice that on another day we existed on flour and water soup – I thought that mixture was for paper hanging! Someone tried shooting rabbits with a Sten gun, the bullets drove the fur into the meat making quite a mess. I got hold of some snares and by tracking where the rabbits were coming along in the snow I caught one on the 21st March which the cooks in the Officer’s Mess cooked for me, this was shared round my section.
Following the snow came the rain and then the floods, the whole population suffered badly from this Winter which aggravated the food shortages and shortages of coal, which in any case could not be transported due to the closure of the railways and blocked roads.
On the 5th May 1947 yet another move, we were sent to an Army Camp at Tidworth as the advance party so we were busy clearing and cleaning the barracks ready for the Battalion to move in.
We had taken over one block of the four barrack rooms and my section was all together in the bottom left hand room. The remaining rooms were completely empty and had been cleared by us. We heard the footsteps of a woman crossing the floor of the barrack room directly above ours, we rushed upstairs and the room was empty. We searched the ablutions and the other barrack rooms but they were all empty, there was no other means of exit other than the way we came in. The rooms which were completely devoid of furniture and fittings were like echo chambers. We made a lot of noise walking across the wooden upper floor.
One of my Section said that a few days later he had spoken to some civilians who worked in the Camp and they said that the Barracks had been used to house GI brides who were waiting transport by sea to join their American husbands in the USA. It was said that one of these women had committed suicide by jumping out of one of the windows of the first floor barrack rooms. This was probably about 1946.
On the 6th May 1947 one of the Scots lads was killed on his birthday when his parachute failed to open. He was in the 5th Battalion which had just resumed practice jumping.
On the 14th May I was sent on a Stick Commander’s Course at RAF Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. Various aircraft were being used for dropping at that time and each one had various modifications made to it to make it safer for jumping from. Small fairings went over projecting parts and these had to be checked and signed for as correct by the Stick Commander. We also had to fill in forms in which we wrote down the number, rank and name of every member of the stick also their weight and position in the stick. It was an interesting course and nice to get around aeroplanes again after our spell in Palestine.
On the 11th June a large number of us were sent to Netheravon in Wiltshire for synthetic training. On the following day we again went to RAF Netheravon for a training jump from a Dakota aircraft. I had with me in my stick of 20 men, one of my Section and an old friend who I will call ”O”. When we were serving in Palestine he told me that he had lost his nerve for parachuting and asked me what he could do about it. I reported this to my Platoon Commander who went to the Company Commander. This was discussed thoroughly and he was told that once he had completed his course of eight parachute jumps and had been given his extra parachute pay he must jump, there was no such thing as ‘losing your nerve”. He would be OK when we got round to jumping again.
When he heard we were jumping again ”O” told me that there was no way he was going to jump, I reported this to the CO and was told that he had got to jump.
When I arrived at Netheravon with my stick I took them to the parachute store to draw parachutes. I wrote down the numbers on my pro forma and when I got to “O’s” name I found that he hadn’t drawn a chute, I told him not to be silly and told him that he should refuse to jump when it came to his turn. He pointed out that as none of us had jumped for 19 months others might be put off by his refusal and they might jib as well.
The RAF people there were very good and even the pilot of the aircraft we were going on came to the store and said the same as me. “O” steadfastly refused to draw his chute and I was forced to give him a direct order and on his refusal, I placed him under close arrest and handed him over to the RAF police.
We took off one man short and had a nice long flight of nearly 2 hours before the pilot throttled back his engines, gave us the red and green lights and out we went. We all made very heavy landings and most of us were bruised. The wind speed of the DZ was apparently 19 mph, which added to the normal speed of descent of 14 mph, made a landing speed of 33 mph. The whole jump was lucky to have got away with only 9 casualties; broken arms, legs and head injuries.
On the next day, I will emphasise the date – Friday 13th June, we again went to Netheravon and with a combination of not having done much jumping apart from the previous day and still suffering from the bruising, and the memory of the Scot having a “candle” – Friday the 13th – what a day to pick.
I know that when I stood up in the aircraft waiting for the red and green lights my legs were uncontrollably shaking, how number 12a in the stack felt I don’t know, but I’m glad it was not me. The twenty of us made a clean jump and that was that.
I never saw “O” again, he was kept in military custody awaiting Court-Martial, he pleaded guilty to the charge of “refusing to draw a chute”. I believe that he received 6 months detention before being returned to his original unit.
During this series of refresher jumps an amusing experience was shared by one stick of twenty. About half of them had jumped when the plane hit an air pocket and dropped like a stone. It stopped falling with a jolt that sent one of the men headfirst through the door, the next in line fell across his legs and the rest fell on top of him. They got to their feet after the pilot had reached the end of the DZ and was climbing away. I think that the chap’s name was Oaten who was trapped by his legs. When they got off him he fell into space, the others, seeing him going, then followed and were all scattered all over the countryside.
On 16th June I became Officers Mess Caterer due to someone else being demobbed. I had a weeks training with my predecessor travelling around various shops and farms in the Marlborough area. I learnt how to trade and what the term “under the counter” meant. I had to supervise the officer’s meals and announce when dinner was served. A very important part of the job was deciphering the Officer’s signatures on the mess chitties and then recording them against their mess account.
Roundabout September I had obviously lost interest in my Diary but I remember we went to Fairford in Gloucestershire where we completed two jumps from a converted Handley Page Halifax four-engined bomber. This had a six-foot long hole cut in the floor and we stood in a stick of ten in line facing the hole. We had to avoid doing the “big leap” that we had been taught to do from the Dakotas as this would result in “Ringing the Bell” on the far end of the hole. I was in the middle of the stick and I remember looking down through the hole just before I jumped and I could see at least two blokes falling away like bombs, then it was my turn. There were no problems with the jumps, which were my last before being demobbed.
The Battalion did a massed drop on Salisbury Plain for the benefit of visiting Allied Commanders, luckily I had to remain in the Officer’s mess as there was a strong wind blowing and I believe that there was a 20% casualty rate.
Later the 6th Battalion moved to Germany leaving members of my demob group 68 behind, where we were posted to Aldershot. On the 17th February I was sent to Woking and issued with my demob suit, discharge papers and civilian ration book with which I had to register at a particular grocer or butcher for example.
Whilst typing this I came across an article in a newspaper which refers to 1948 – the year I was demobbed.
In 1948 the weekly food ration was less than a pound of meat, 15 ounces of cheese, 1 ounce of cooking fat, half a pound of sugar 2 pints of milk and 1 egg. Bread was also rationed and furnishings and clothing were “on coupon”
As a Corporal with Parachute pay, I was given 11 shillings a day – three pounds and seventeen shillings a week.
Created with information kindly supplied by Alan C Dent.Read More