Memories of Ronnie Potter – The Maypole Estate, Dartford Heath
My first memory is of Mrs Rivers pushing me down Baldwyns Road in a pram. There are flags and bunting strung across the road so it must be some kind of street party. The only party we had at about that time was for the Coronation. My mum says I was too young to remember anything at two or three years old, but I do. Thereafter I don’t remember anything until my first day at school. I recall sitting mid-way down the left hand side of the classroom and being told that dinner wouldn’t be too long. It ruddy well was! I remember that, and I lost a little respect for the teaching profession that day. If you can’t trust them to bring your dinner along when they say they will, what chance have they got of convincing you that there was a battle in Hastings in 1066? I reckon it could have been anytime between 1060 and 1070, and that’s giving them the benefit of the doubt. I began to question things from about that time. “Today we’re going to learn about the Hundred Years War.” “I say it was seventy five. Any advance on seventy five?” “Ronald Potter, go and stand in the corner.” That’s my third memory. And fourth. And fifth.
The corners of various classrooms in the Maypole County Primary School. Later, and I mean much later, I found out why I don’t remember much of my early years. One of my teachers, concerned about this apparently serene youngster in the class who had no interest in the blackboard or what the teacher was doing out there in front of him, asked my mother if I had problems with my sight. My mother said “Of course not! Not my little boy,” but anyway, she took me to an opticians where it was discovered that I had abysmal vision in my left eye, and not too bright in the right either. From that day I’ve worn glasses. I was dragged from my reverie, that delightful dream world of dismembered voices and hazy shapes into the stark world of sharp images and 20/20ish vision and the sad realisation that voices came from people and not out of the ether. Wearing glasses was never the traumatic experience that people think it should be. I don’t think any of the children noticed to be quite honest. We all accepted things without prejudice. It was not until I was in my teens that I realised that you had to learn prejudice, it’s not a thing you’re born with. For example, Richard Wight had contracted Polio at some stage and wore leg-irons. The only difference that that made to us was that we learned very quickly to get out of his way during the games of football we played with a tennis ball in the school playground. He would come charging stiff-legged through the middle of us all and God help anyone who got in his way. His legs were supported either side by metal rods and this made tackling him extremely dangerous. He was always picked first when it came to team-picking time.
The biggest problem with wearing glasses was that they got broken every week. There were several stages in the life of a pair of schoolboy glasses. The first things to go were the arms. This was an easy job to fix. Sellotape! Don’t ask me why it had to be Sellotape for the arms, but Sellotape it was. It normally lasted for two or three days until the sticky started to wear off, and then it needed some more. This continued until the glasses were sticking out an inch from your head and the Sellotape started sticking in your hair. In those days we all had short back and sides, with a quiff hanging down the front. Or in my case, having wavy hair, kiss curls. When the hair got stuck in your glasses you swept it out of the way and inevitably knocked the glasses off your head and smashed the left lens on the floor. Always the left, thank goodness. The right and I would have been blind. The only way to fix broken lenses is, of course, pink Elastoplast! And that is how you walked around for about three weeks of every month, for that is how long it took to get replacement glasses. You had a great ball of hair-covered Sellotape sticking out of the side of your head and a junior version of Blackbeard’s patch in pink over one eye. It was so commonplace as to arouse no comment. Any more than your front teeth falling out and making you talk with a lisp. Can you imagine what you’d feel like as an adult if all these things happened to you at the same time? You’d be afraid to go out of the house and face your peers.
Life at Maypole County Primary School was never very stressful as I remember. Lots of playtimes and swimming lessons at Hextable. School sports days where none of the children cared who won or lost. We’d all had numerous races in the playground and knew who were the best runners, jumpers or throwers. Richard Wight was in great demand for the Three-Legged race, for obvious reasons, and always won, whosoever was strapped to his port side leg-iron. The able-legged person was the one who had the greatest problem, trying to keep up with the expert. Opposite the school was Bexley Mental Hospital, another great influence on my life. Life on our estate revolved around the Hospital. A lot of the mothers did cleaning jobs during school hours to help make ends meet. The patients themselves were all relatively harmless, the violent ones being locked in closed wards. We soon got to know the regulars. There was the Black Widow. Always dressed in black, she had taken a shine to blond, angelic Simon. Every time she saw him she would give him sixpence. He was a little scared at the fact that he had been picked out from the rest of us and tried to hide down the alley when he saw her. We, on the other hand, would keep an eye out for her and drag Simon up to her so’s he could get his tanner Then it was toffee chews all round. Poor Simon had to spend the money as he would got a clip around the ear if his Mum and Dad found out he was taking money, “Off a Patient.” That is what they were called. Patients. There was never a case that I can remember from the children or the parents of cruelty concerning the Patients. They were a part of life and accepted as such. Even when one shat on the doormat I can remember my sister Anne saying, “I’ll clear it up Mum. It was only one of the Patients.” Mind you, Anne always was a little saintly and later went to Africa as a missionary.
There were times when the Patients did things which did reflect a bit on the community. The worst case didn’t affect the Maypole Estate kids, but the kids being brought to school by bus. There was a Patient without a name but known to all the kids because she often wore a wedding dress. Rumour had it that she had been jilted at the altar and that that had turned her. This particular morning at about ten to eight, resplendent in her wedding dress, she dived under the school bus and the wheels ran over her head. There was a lot of screaming and puking, mainly by the adults, and none of the teachers would talk about it at school. We all knew, of course, because the kids on the bus had been sent home for the day and there were empty places in the classroom. We all rushed out at the end of school to see the blood, but the Fire Brigade had hosed it all away. That made it even more spooky. We began to wonder if it had really happened, and became a little jealous when the kids who had seen it came to school the following day and told us all about it. One of them said he had been thrown in the air and had landed in the aisle when the wheels ran over her head, but I’m not sure I believed him. In retrospect, I suppose the most dangerous of the lot were the Patients with sexual problems.
The Hospital and indeed the school bordered onto Dartford Heath, and these Patients used to wander the Heath exposing themselves to the children. The first time it happened to me was scary because I’d never seen a mature erect penis. I thought the poor bloke was deformed or had had an accident. I remember crawling into bed with my Mum later that night and her consoling me and explaining that they were Patients and that they didn’t know what they were doing. She told me that I should run away if it happened again. I became a very good runner after that. There was one Patient who used to expose himself to the school bus bringing the older kids home from the Secondary Schools in Dartford. He used to leap out from behind the same bush every afternoon. The police used to nick him every so often, but he was a Patient so they couldn’t do much about it. I did hear one of the parents say that he should, “Be bound over to keep the piece in his trousers,” but I didn’t get the joke at the time. Dartford Heath was good fun. We had a gang, me and David McKeough, Richard Wight, Paul Elliman and his brother John, the Conboy brothers, Richard and Kevin, (Kevin smoked!) And John Warwick came along later. We would play Commandos and build swings down the Dell. These swings were built on the side of a hill and you could swing out to about thirty feet above the ground. The Heathkeepers used to come around every so often and catch us if they were quick enough and tell us off and cut down the swing. Once in a while one of us would fall off the swing and break something. This gave you a great deal of status, of course, and you could boast about how much it hurt and what it was like to have an X-ray and how brave everyone had said you had been. Never mind the fact that you’d screamed like a stuck pig when it happened, so much so that all your friends had run away at first, in case you died and they got a belting for playing on the swing.
Mr. Winter owned Maypole House, a big castellated house to one side of the estate. He had large grounds to the house and the whole was protected by hedges or high fences or walls. Mr. Stockford was his groundsman and he lived a few doors down from us. He had lived all his life on the estate and knew all of us and all of our parents. The problem with the Winter grounds were that they were between the Maypole Estate and the best playing areas of the Dell and the Dip. So we used to climb over the wall at the back of Dave McKeough’s house and run the hundred yards or so to the chain link fence at the other side of a shallow valley, clamber over this and make our way into the woods and down into the Dell. At first Old Stottie couldn’t catch us. And then he got a Power Mower. The first time that he came roaring out from his shed and down the valley, we all froze. It must have been hilarious to watch. We all ran in different directions howling at the top of our voices. Richard got caught because he couldn’t get over the wall with his calipers on, and none of us stayed around to help him. Later that day Mr Stotford came round to all our houses told our parents that we had been trespassing and that next time it would be the Police. Richard had been taken to his house by Mr Stotford and Mrs Wight kept him in for the weekend. We all thought that Mr Stotford had tortured Richard to get our names and then buried him in the grounds. Stottie had been in the Army during the war and wore a thick leather belt with Regimental cap-badges studded all round it, so he knew how to kill people. You can imagine our relief when Richard turned up for school on Monday. I was always a bit wary of old Mr Stotford after that, though. He looked like he would have liked to kill or torture us when he was charging down the valley astride his motor-mower, like a motorised member of The Light Brigade. We weren’t really naughty, just adventurous and full of life. Sometimes we would overstep the mark and the Police got involved. The first involved a scrumping expedition into the orchards of the Hospital. We kicked in a couple of fence palings, climbed through and filled our jumpers with cherry-plums. Then we moved along to the apple orchards. I had no more room up my jumper and was a bit scared so I told the others I would wait outside and keep watch. It couldn’t have been two minutes later that the Police drove past and saw me lurking guiltily next to the hole in the fence. They stopped and came across and I came close to peeing in my pants.
My Dad had been a copper and I knew what would happen to me when I got home. They indicated that I should get in the car without saying a word and settled down to wait for the others. As each of them came out of the hole in the fence they were lifted by the collar and stood to one side of the hole out of sight of those still inside. When we were all out they bundled us into the car and took us to the porters gate at the entrance to the Hospital, where the porters took our names and addresses which they used to send our parents bills for the repair of the fence and for the stolen fruit. Of course none of us told our parents what had happened, and about three or four days later and two minutes after the postman had been, what sounded like air-raid sirens could be heard from half a dozen houses on the estate. It was, of course, each of us wailing after being slapped or belted by our parents. Three shillings and ninepence was the bill. When my sisters heard about it I got another telling-off and poking me they said, “You’re supposed to be a boy. We never got caught when we went scrumping.” My mother wanted to know where the fruit was. I told her that I had been too scared to bring it home in case she found out. She then did something I’ll never forget. She sent me out to “Get three shillings and ninepence worth of fruit and don’t get caught this time!” I don’t think any of the other kids got these instructions because this time I carried out a lone mission. I was terrified in case I got caught by the Police again or even worse, by a Patient. No-one has ever hopped over a fence and filled his jumper full of cherry-plums so quickly in their life. And all the time sobbing, with my eyes filling up with tears. It did the job though, and I never scrumped in the Hospital after that. We targeted the orchard next to St Mary’s Graveyard instead, where it was quieter and the Police didn’t drive past. We discovered it when we were covering for the choir in the St Mary’s, who were away camping. We all belonged to the local choir at St Barnabas Church. Every Wednesday evening we would turn up for choir practice, except for the Conboy brothers who were Catholics, whatever that meant. As soon as practice was finished we would go down to the fish and chip shop at the bottom of the Dip and get fourpen’th of chips and some crackling. Then we would walk back up the hill to the Estate climbing the lampposts and swinging on the cross-trees at the top. Dave McKeough did the best impression of a monkey, especially with a bag of chips in his hand. The road was badly lit and ran past the Hospital which had a high wall and a fence atop it. On the other side of the road was an annexe to the Hospital, which was in fact a convalescent home for minor mental cases like nervous breakdowns or alcoholics with DT’s. The Annexe had a cowfield around it into which St Barnabas protruded. Every time the organ played in the church the cows would come and lean over the barbed wire fence at the back and gently chew the cud and low. That was until we came charging out of the vestry after choir practice or a service and shooed them all away. Luckily they were only heifers or goodness knows what damage we would have caused. The cowfield was a useful short-cut to the allotments if Stottie was about in the Winter’s garden. It was a longer way round and you had to run the gauntlet of the cows and the staff of the convalescent home. There was a bit of dead ground you could use though, and this was fun to crawl along. The allotments had a stream running through them. It wasn’t really a stream, it was a ditch for the run-off water from the roadside gutters in the Dip. We used to dam it and get our socks wet and get covered in mud and have a great time there. Only if our Dads weren’t working on the allotments though.
On a Sunday one of us in our family would have to take Dad his Sunday dinner to the allotments. Mum would serve it out onto his plate and it would be covered with another plate and wrapped in tea-towels. A pint of tea would be put into a milk bottle and that would be wrapped in tea towels too. Then whoever had been chosen to take it down, usually Anne, would have to get to the allotments as quickly as possible. Dad had two plots, one with fruit bushes and one with vegetables. He used to spend all day Sunday there, whether to get away from us or not I don’t know. We lived well from the allotments, always plenty of veg in season and loads of different types of jam. Mum was good at jam. But not at chips. Dad worked for Barclays Bank; District, Colonial and Overseas, in London. He was a messenger and went off to work at six thirty every morning in a navy blue suit with silver buttons and a bowler hat and umbrella. He was always immaculate for work with his starched detachable collar and black tie. It was lucky that he did work for the Bank, for we were one of the first ones in the street to have our own house, bought and paid for. It cost £1100. When Mum blew the roof out of the scullery whilst cooking chips, Dad was able to borrow money from the bank and we had the scullery knocked down and an extension put on the back of the house with a kitchen downstairs and a bathroom and toilet above. It cost £800 to build. Before we had this luxury, we had had an outside loo, which Dad had brought into the dry by building a lean-to conservatory onto the back of the house. Baths had been taken in a tin bath for the grown-ups, or in the scullery sink for the kids. We heated the water in a copper boiler, and this was also used for boiling the sheets once a week, or for making spotted dick. We also had a number of sheds. Dad liked building sheds, so we had one for the bikes and Dad’s tools, a coal shed and a back shed which was always full of things for the garden, like spades and forks, and for the clothes props. You had to climb over everything to get at whatever you wanted, because whatever it was, it was always at the back. I used to use the clothes props for pole-vaulting off of the shed roof and into the garden. My Mum used to go frantic and said I’d break my leg, but I never did.
Continued, Maypole Estate and onwards
There was an Anderson Shelter in the garden, left over from the war. Eventually Dad broke it up and used the concrete to make flower beds which made my pole-vaulting a bit more difficult as I had to achieve pin-point accuracy to avoid breaking my legs or doing myself some other damage.
The only memory I have of any of my Grandparents is of my Mum’s Dad who at eighty was shocked at the sight of a human cannonball flying from the shed roof above him and nearly decapitating him with a clothes prop. He told my Mum but she just said,
‘He’s always doing things like that,’ and carried on with her chores.
Then the day arrived when a letter dropped through the post box telling me that I had passed the Eleven Plus and had been accepted at Dartford Grammar School. It meant nothing to me, I had no idea what it meant, but Mum and Dad were very pleased and I was told that it was something to be proud of. I didn’t know why, but Dad said I could have a new bike so I shut up and accepted it. I had to get a uniform and rugby kit and boots and a new satchel and I realized that there was method in my Dad’s madness as I then had to ride the couple of miles or so to school and back and saved him bus fares.
Life at Dartford Grammar was a disaster. I didn’t know how to study and nobody taught me how to. Everything had come naturally to me at Primary School and I soon fell behind. I loved the physical side of things and was in the rugby and gymnastics teams, but academia left me cold. English was my only strong point, and I wasn’t bad at geography, but maths was a disaster. The teacher was no help, he was a nerd who delighted in wearing his teacher’s cloak everywhere as he thought it gave him power over the brats he had to teach. In fact, it made him look ridiculous as he had no physical accoutrements to fill the cloak and he looked like Gollum slinking around the corridors and not at all the magnificent figure of a man with a cloak billowing out behind him that he imagined himself to be. He was fresh out of university and still had acne. His idea of a lesson was to walk into the classroom, put a formula on the board and say,
‘This is such-and-such a theorem, learn it.’
Never an explanation as to what the theorem may be used for, just a rote-style of teaching, useless for me. If I asked anything of him he would construe it as insubordination and belittle me or give me a detention. Needless to say, I didn’t learn his theorems and suffered because of that. His name was Mr. Baker and I resent him to this day. In fact I learned more about maths from an Artillery Gunnery Instructor in an hour and a half than I learned from Mr. Baker in four years.
I was good at rugby and that kept me away from too much trouble. The PT instructor was Mike Richardson, a fine figure of a man with thighs I had trouble getting my arms around, and he put in a good word for me when it was needed. But the writing was on the wall by the time I was in the fourth-form and during a trip into Dartford one day after school I saw a recruitment poster in the Army Information Office, walked in and signed on, at fifteen years old, to go to the Junior Leader’s Regiment, Royal Artillery. My mother went ballistic at first, but after she had been told by the recruiting Sergeant that my academic studies would continue alongside my military training, she relented and signed the paperwork. Gone were her hopes of me going to Oxford, (she wouldn’t countenance Cambridge) and giving her something to tell her friends.
There were some good teachers at Dartford Grammar, it wasn’t all bad. The Art teacher, whose name I can’t remember but whose face is still clear in my mind, was always helping us without being the slightest bit overbearing. Doc Holliday, the Deputy Head who once had me in his office at the behest of Mr. Baker. Mr. Baker had some bee in his bonnet and wanted me thrashed but Doc was old and wise and saw at once that there was a clash of personalities. He listened to Mr. Baker and then led me into his office and closed the door, leaving Mr. Baker hovering outside. Doc proceeded to give me a dressing-down and while he did so he hit his desk with a slipper, six strokes to be exact. He gave a slight smile after he had finished burning my ear and sent me on my way. Mr. Baker was really annoyed that I hadn’t left Doc’s office holding my backside and I hope he believed that Doc had given me six of the best and that I was too proud to let him see that it had hurt.
Another good teacher was Major (Guts) Warwick R.A. who taught Geography. He had been around a bit and made the lessons come alive. He was succeeded by Mr. Godfrey who was also a good Geography teacher. One day, I don’t know why, I pulled the chair away from Mr. Godfrey when he was about to sit down and he went sprawling in front of the whole class. I was mortified and had no idea why I had done it, but done it was and Mr. Godfrey had no other option than to take me to the Headmaster. Ronald Loftus (Lofty) Hudson, was a small man but oozed authority in a quiet way. He looked disappointed with me, probably as he knew I wasn’t long for the school, and gave me six of the best with his cane. Later that afternoon we had PT and the stripes on my buttocks were still livid. The other boys gathered round in the shower to see the damage and I acted nonchalantly. I didn’t resent Mr. Godfrey or the Headmaster, I deserved it and hope I took it like a man. It bloody hurt for a couple of days, though.
The day came when I was to join my regiment in Nuneaton. My mum escorted me to London and with a brown paper parcel containing a change of underwear clutched under my arm I got on the train to Nuneaton accompanied by a bunch of similar young lads. I remember arriving and being shepherded about, having uniforms issued, having haircuts, although I had had one the previous day in preparation for my first day in the Army. It was the first stage of our de-humanisation, after which we would be re-built in God’s image, we were told. I remember going into a barrack room and being shown to my bed, one of a twenty or so in the room. The lad in the next bed, a small wiry man with a Teddy-boy quaff, all that was left of his hair, said to me,
‘Youse a Papist?’
‘I’m sorry?’ I answered.
‘Youse a Papist?’ he repeated.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I said.
‘Youse a Catholic?’ he said, ‘’Cos I’m nae sleepin’ next to a Catholic.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m Church of England.’
‘That’s areet then, but ye’d be better if ye were Church of Scotland,’ he said and I threw my kit down on the bed.
He was George Laverty from Greenock and we became firm friends for life. Unfortunately it was a short life for George and he died suddenly of a heart attack when he was thirty-eight.
The following morning we lined up and our military indoctrination began. Our Troop Sergeant stood in front of us and shouted,
‘Welcome to the Junior Leader’s Regiment, Royal Artillery,’ he shouted. ‘While you is here you will continue with your hacademic studies as well as your military training, and I am going to turn you into Born Leaders.’
I laughed at this and he came striding down the line towards me and bellowed,
‘What you laughing at Soldier?’
‘Your joke, Sergeant,’ I replied.
‘You think I’m funny, do you?’
‘Well, yes Sergeant.’
‘What’s your name, Potter’’ he shouted, looking at my name tag.
‘Ron, Sergeant,’ I replied.
‘Don’t you give me Ron, Potter. You’re Potter, right? We don’t do first names here.’
I shut up, the most important lesson I learned in the Army whether confronted by N.C.O.’s or Officers, I found it best to shut up and try not to laugh. It didn’t last for long.
On the first Saturday we finished for the day at around two in the afternoon and the Sergeant fell us in in three ranks and said,
‘Tomorrow morning, 10:00 hours, church parade, Nº 2 Dress, fall in here.’
One of the lads chirped up, ‘Excuse me Sergeant but I’m R.C. Do I have to go?’
‘I don’t care if you’re R.C., Pharisee or Sadducee’ he said. ‘Church parade tomorrow, 10:00.’
I guffawed again and the Sergeant glared at me and shouted, ‘What’s your problem now, Potter?’
‘I was laughing at your joke, Sergeant,’ I said.
‘What joke?’ he said and I realized he had no idea what Pharisees or Sadducees were, but that he was just repeating what he had heard someone else saying. ‘You think I’m a joke?’
‘No Sergeant,’ I replied looking for somewhere to hide.
‘I’ve got my eye on you, Potter,’ he said, menacingly.
Three months of recruit training was not too bad, lots of marching about and learning how to keep ourselves clean and how to press our uniforms. A few lads stick in my memory. One was called Rose and he was a Pakistani although he spoke with a London accent you could cut with a knife. We called him Rosie, I was Pansy. He looked like Peter Sellers in the film, ‘The Millionairess,’ and had a wicked sense of humour. Come the end of our basic training we had a passing out parade when we ceased to be recruits and passed into the main body of the regiment. The presiding General was a Brigadier Goschen and the Sergeant in charge of us told us that he liked to ask every other soldier in the parade if they knew his name, probably because he was so old he forgot it every third step. We were briefed time and again on the name, ‘Goschen, Goschen, Goschen.’ Evidently he had presented the Regiment with some silver heralding trumpets and for that got to have a parade in his honour three times a year. I believe he was also a very much decorated soldier.
Come the day of the parade Rosie and I were stood next to each other. The Brigadier appeared, much smaller than we expected a senior officer to be and proceeded to walk along the front rank. He asked the boy to my right if he knew his name and the lad confidently shouted,
‘Good man,’ he replied.
He ignored me and then stood in front of Rosie, obviously surprised at having a dark-skinned soldier in front of him and demanded,
‘And what’s your name?’
‘Goschen, Sir!’ yelled Rosie.
‘Goschen?’ said the Brigadier, shocked. ‘Didn’t know we had any Indian Goschens’ in the family.’
‘No, Sir!’ shouted Rosie. ‘Pakistani, Rose.’
‘Pakistani Rose? What is this man talking about, Sergeant,’ he asked turning to our Troop Sergeant.
‘His name is Rose and he’s Pakistani,’ replied the Sergeant.
‘Why did he say his name is Goschen?’ asked the Brigadier.
‘He gets confused, Sir,’ said the Sergeant. ‘He’s gets very confused, gets nervous on parades, Sir.’
‘He jolly well confuses me, too,’ said the Brigadier. ‘Sort him out.’
We all managed to hold our breath until the Brigadier had finished inspecting us but as soon as we got back into the barrack block we collapsed with laughter. Rosie was duly sorted out and I know for a fact that it had no effect on him whatsoever.
Another incident involved a block inspection. For these we had to make sure everything was spotless, the floor was polished to a high gloss, the beds were made into blanket blocks and we were stood spotlessly to attention at the end of our beds. The barrack blocks were configured in an ‘H’ shape. Two dormitories at either end and an ablution area on the cross member of the ‘H’. There were steps at either end of the ablution block which lead up to the upper floors, one from the back entrance and one from the front. Come the day of the inspection we were all ready and one lad was detailed to put on a pair of pyjama trousers to protect his best kit, get down on all fours and polish the floor by hand to get rid of any smudges before the inspecting office arrived. As with all military plans, it went disastrously wrong. The office came up the wrong flight of stairs, the lad panicked and jumped into the broom cupboard. The officer duly inspected the two dormitories and then opened the door of the broom cupboard!
‘What are you doing in the broom cupboard?’ demanded the officer.
‘Broom Orderly, Sir,’ replied the soldier, quick as a flash.
The officer shut the door and moved down the ablution corridor to inspect the dormitories at that end. When he had finished he went to the broom cupboard at that end and opened it. It was empty, and he bellowed,
‘Sir,’ replied the Sergeant.
‘Where’s your broom orderly?’
‘What, Sir? said the Sergeant.
‘Your broom orderly. Where’s your broom orderly?’
‘Don’t have a broom orderly, Sir.’
‘Why not? The other end of the block has.’
‘It does, Sir?’ said Sergeant Gallagher.
‘Yes it has. Come with me.’
And they trooped down the corridor and opened the broom cupboard at the other end of the block. It was empty.
‘Where is he. What have you done with him?’ demanded the officer.
‘I ain’t done nothing, Sir,’ said Sergeant Gallagher. ‘This ain’t my end of the block, Sir. My part is at the other end.’
‘There’s something going on here,’ said the officer. ‘Find out what it is and report to me, Sergeant.’
‘Sir,’ replied Sergeant Gallagher. And that was the end of that.
Of course as soon as the officer had gone the lad in the cupboard had skipped to his bed-space, dropped his pyjama bottoms, stuffed them under his pillow and was stood smartly at the end of his bed when the officer returned. The Sergeant in charge of that end of the block had made himself scarce, having seen what had happened and not wanting to face the irate officer. Everyone kept schtum and it passed into regimental myth.
We were all very fit. We had loads of P.T and a lot of cross country runs and marches all over the countryside of Britain. I soon learned that if the rest of the population didn’t want an area of Britain because it was too bleak, the Army marched all over it. Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor, the Brecon Beacons, Sennybridge, Snowdonia, the Cairngorms and the Lake District all saw the underside of our boots. Thirty or forty miles was not unusual, carrying a pack on our backs which grew progressively heavier as the canvas tents and our clothing got saturated and piled on the weight.
We had a pecking order as Junior Leaders which was rigidly adhered to in every aspect, from sharing cakes and cigarettes, to cleaning a senior boy’s boots, belt and gaiters. God help anyone who broke the established protocols, they were taken into the drying room and beaten. As soon as I left Recruits Battery and moved into the Troops, I was an easy target. Small, skinny, an ex-Grammar School boy with glasses I was bullied unmercifully. I took it and learned the wisdom of my dad’s words. ‘Forgive but never forget.’
I never did and was equally unmerciful when I met up with one of my tormentors later in life. But I learnt that revenge is not a pleasant meal, cold or hot and just got over it.
We had a few accidents. On one of our many marches, this time across Thetford training camp in Norfolk, a boy picked up an unexploded Energa anti-tank grenade and threw it against a tank about ten metres away. It exploded and the lad was covered in shrapnel and was lucky not to lose his life. He had some terrible scars to his face, however.
We trained with rifles, machine guns, anti-tank weapons, artillery of course, and that most deadly of all weapons, hand grenades. We had one lad called Eric who was just not suited to be a soldier. Small and blonde, everything he touched turned into a fully-fledged disaster. It was good training for us, though, as we became very vigilant when he was around and listened to everything the instructors told us as we know that Eric wouldn’t. Come the day for grenade practice we were all made to stand behind a ten-foot high wall and briefed on how to pull the pin and keep hold of the firing lever, adopt a throwing position and hurl the grenade over the wall and into the impact area beyond. We all had a throw and then Eric was given his grenade. We watched like hawks, expecting him to drop the grenade and throw the pin or do something equally daft. He didn’t. He pulled the pin in the proper manner and threw the grenade high into the air. Straight up into the air. We all realized that the grenade was going to land on our side of the wall so we rushed around to the other side and pressed ourselves tight against it. All except Eric who calmly waited until the grenade had landed, then picked it up and threw it over the wall. We saw it flying above us and rushed back, all of us ready to kill Eric. The Sergeant got to him first and that was the last we saw of Eric. Rumour had it that he was sent to Woolwich Depot as a permanent cookhouse orderly. Luckily, training grenades have much longer time fuses than those used in combat and that undoubtedly saved our lives.
At last the time came to cease being boy soldiers and move into the regular Artillery units of the British Army. As the Artillery had many regiments, stationed all over the world but especially in Germany, the choice was large. The most prestigious regiments were 29 Commando Light Regiment Royal Artillery, 95 Commando Light Regiment, Royal Artillery and 7 Parachute Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery. I chose 29 Commando, mainly because a lot of boys had gone there from Junior Leaders and because 29 and 95 had a rotation of two years in Singapore and two years in Plymouth. A much better prospect than the Paras who were based in Aldershot. Before being allowed to go into the Man’s World we had to be issued with new identity cards. I stood in front of the Chief Clerk and he demanded, ‘Height?’
‘Five feet eleven and three quarters,’ I said.
On your last ID card it says five feet five,’ he said.
‘I was fifteen then and I’ve grown in the two years I’ve been here.’
‘You can’t grow seven inches in two years,’ he said.
‘Well I have, Staff,’ I said.
‘Impossible,’ he said. ‘I’ll put you down as five feet nine for now and you can be six foot next time you need a new ID card.’
‘But I’m six feet now,’ I said.
‘Impossible,’ he said. ‘Five feet nine.’
And I had five feet nine impressed on my ID card for the next twenty-two years.
So. In in May 1967 I reported to 29 Commando in Plymouth ready to undergo a month’s pre-Commando training before going to the Royal Marines Training Centre at Lympstone in Devon. We were given a load of kit, mainly the latest webbing and an SLR rifle which I carried on my person for the next seven years.
The course started on the Monday morning and two weeks later three-quarters of the wannabe Commandos had been returned to their units. All of the ex-Junior Leaders were still there, probably as we were much fitter and more resigned to being buggered about. So instead of giving us another two weeks of pre-Commando training they sent us off to Lympstone to the Royal Marines training centre. Here we were assigned to a group of Royal Marines and joined them in their final month of training which was when the Commando testing took place. Extra pressure was put on the Army members as no soldier had ever failed the Commando course before, so we had that hanging over our heads. We were issued with another rifle, reconditioned weapons which were to last only one month before they were too battered to be used any more.
There were a whole host of tests, speed marching which I hated, being more of a gymnast than runner; load carrying, agility and assault courses, which were much more my cup of tea, and the endurance course, a water and mud based assault course followed by a four mile run back to camp, soaking wet and covered in mud. This was followed by having to crawl along a rope suspended above a water tank, stop in the middle, hang underneath the rope until your arms were fully extended then haul yourself back on top of the rope and continue to the other side. At the end of all these tests you had to fire your rifle and get eight out of ten rounds on target or you failed, regardless of how well you had performed on the assault cuorse or the run back. The last test was a 30 mile diagonal dash across the top of Dartmoor to be completed in eight hours. My group did in seven hours ten minutes, so we all passed and were presented with our green berets.
We returned to Plymouth where we were allocated to a gun battery, except those who went straight to P Company to do the paratrooper training. I was sent to 79 Kirkee Commando Battery and what a bunch of characters they were. They had just returned from Aden and the Gulf, where one of the gun Sergeants’ had won a Military Medal for action in the Radfan. Our barracks was The Royal Citadel on Plymouth Hoe, which has to be the best posting in Britain. The sea to our backs and more pubs than you could shake a stick at to our front, it was a young man’s Paradise. I was in a room of ten other lads, all big drinkers and massive risk-takers. Nothing was too outrageous for them and the Battery Commander was kept busy trying to keep them in order. Usually this meant we were practicing something or other on Dartmoor most days and drinking most nights.
We would be paid at Wednesday lunchtime and the barracks was soon deserted as everyone disappeared into town to find somewhere to drink. The pubs shut at two-thirty so it was a matter of getting some beers from the off-licence or going to the one or two clubs that were open in the afternoon. One of these was owned by a Greek who would do a dance with his head flung back, a wine glass balanced on his forehead. We all thought this was a great feat until someone barged into him and his head came upright, the glass sticking out at ninety degrees to his head like a unicorn. He’d stuck it to his forehead and was really upset that he had been discovered. The toilets of the club were upstairs and none too clean. They were directly above the bar and it wasn’t unusual after a long session to find urine dripping through the ceiling and into your beer. There was a great jazz club above one of the pubs in the Barbican, the old port, and we made full use of that. It was just across the road from the harbour and at least one drunk came out in the early hours, tripped over a mooring rope and fell into the harbor. If they were lucky the tide was in and they got drenched, if not they would land in a foot of water, mud, shopping trollies and bicycle frames.