Memory Four

My draft instructions said that I must serve a two-year term in his Majesty’s Royal Army Ordnance Corps starting on October 1st, 1946.  This Corps provides everything to the army “except food, fuel and fodder.” Their motto was, “Sua Tella Tonanti,” meaning “To the Thunderer, his Arms.”

My father drove me to the station and I realized he was getting emotional about me going into uniform. I think he was remembering when he went into World War I in 1914. He almost immediately went into the trenches at the Somme. He suffered gas attacks and continual shelling and he was wounded with a piece of shrapnel that went right through his arm. He was sent back to England and he says that he has always believed that the shrapnel saved his life because he found out later that his Northamptonshire regiment was almost wiped out.

We stood on the railway platform and I had the longest adult conversation with my Dad I ever had. It reminded me of another platform conversation we had when I was leaving home to go to London University. I was going into an environment that he had never experienced and he found it difficult to talk to me as he knew he could not help me in any way. Later, when I realized this I felt sorry for him and promised myself I would make him proud of me.

On October 1st when I arrived at the Primary Training Camp at Tidworth in Wiltshire, I realized I was in an army town. Everything was military and there were platoons, each with a drill sergeant running all over the place. Little did I realize that the next day I would be doing the same. I was amazed to find several of my class-mates were in the same camp and we realized all of our paperwork had kept together.

The first day was orientation day. We were all given our uniforms and assigned to a barrack room holding 24 recruits and a drill sergeant. We were instructed how and where to stow our kit and given a lesson on how to make a bed, army style, with no pleats and with sharp square corners. We were told that reveille was at 6 a.m. and we were to wash and dress by 6:15 and run, not walk, to the mess hall for breakfast. First parade was at 6:45 a.m. and you had better not be late.

I was in 12th ORTS, other rank trainees, and we were treated by the drill sergeants as if we were unruly school kids who knew nothing. We spent a lot of time drilling and jogging around the camp. We learned everything you could do with a rifle, including cleaning and loading it blind-folded. One day, we went on a 30 mile march and got back to the barracks tired and sore in the dark. While we were all resting and tending our feet, our drill sergeant came in and, without a word, jumped over every bed in the room and walked out. He had done the whole thirty miles with us.

After six weeks, a few of us were selected to go to WOSB, War Office Selection Board. This was in a large multi-roomed house and we played mind games with three officers for three days. We were told that they were selecting candidates to go to OTS, Officer Training School, in Aldershot. Four of us were told three days later that we had been selected and that our orders were to go the next day. Aldershot has been the major six month OTS since 1926 and is for short service officers. Career officers are trained for two years at Sandhurst.

At Aldershot, we soon found out that we had been at a holiday camp at Tidworth and this was a place for serious soldiers. One of the first memorable impressions was the Regimental Sergeant Major “Great” Britain who had become quite famous and had been the subject of articles and interviews. He was a big man, resplendent in his uniform and was the most senior non-commissioned officer in the entire British army. His voice was one to remember, especially if one of his, “Hey You”s was directed at you.

In 1963, when I was going to lunch one day, near the theater district of New York, I was shocked to hear that voice. It still had an eerie effect on me until I came to the front of a theater showing the play, “Chips with Everything.” This was a play about army life and, as a promotion, Sgt Major Britain had come out of retirement to drill the cast of the play, marching them up and down the street.

Much of our curriculum was class instruction but we did a lot of marching, running and trips around an obstacle course. The last of our six months at OTS was held at a battle Camp on Dartmoor in South Devon, where Sherlock Holmes got involved with the “Hounds of Baskerville.” We went on practical maneuvers all over the heather covered moors and tors of Dartmoor while having live ammunition whizzing over our heads and false grenades being thrown near us. Our only relief was the Fish and Chip shop and the apple cider-serving pub in the nearby village.

When we went back to Aldershot, we started practicing for the long-awaited passing-out parade when we would be turned out as commissioned officers. The actual event was very formal and impressive but my best memory of that day was lining up one-by-one to say goodbye to the Sgt. Major. When it was my turn, I stepped up before the dreaded man and he saluted me and said, “Congratulations, Sir!”  I humbly returned the salute and turned away quickly so nobody would see the tear in my eye. This was the beginning of my remaining year of service as a 2nd Lieutenant in the King’s Army, but that’s another memory for another day.

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