Call-up

Ernest and Wilson

Trooper Wilson standing on Ernest's hand

I was met at Tidworth Garrison station and transported to Moolton Barracks which had an alien smell about it, as some regular troops had arrived from India to train the militia. With several others I bedded down on the wooden floor of a barrack room and awoke next morning next to Fred Swingewood, an old school friend from Mow Cop. This was a busy day – learning to queue and collect clothing, uniform and equipment. We also queued for an army number and to give personal information. This was dealt with by a snotty little lance corporal. He asked: ” religion ?”

“Agnostic” I replied.

” You can’t be a bloody agnostic in this army you are C of E.” I felt he wanted an argument so I stayed quiet. Strange that, at the end of the war, one of the four freedoms guaranteed was “freedom of religion”.

One item handed to me was called my best friend – the short Lee-Enfield rifle. Our first lecture was about this sturdy little weapon. Effective range – 2000 yards calibre 0.303 in. In the base of the butt was a little flap which opened to disclose a tubular brass bottle of oil, a length of cord which had a loop at one end and a brass weight on the other – this was the pull-through. There was also. a square of soft cloth which, when put into the loop was pulled from the breech and out through the muzzle to wipe out the oil. The cloth was called forbytwo (4″ x 2″ ).

Our training lasted six months, all on Salisbury Plain. Every day we were assailed by the screech and roar of our fighter planes as the young pilots learned to control the Spitfire and Hurricane in mock dogfights. We seemed to have a lot more than we’d believed, and I found out years afterwards that German intelligence had been way out in their estimates of our strength.

Then came the exodus from France of the B.E.F. as every available boat was put across the channel to bring our lads back from an undignified defeat. It was a magnificent success.

This was where some myopic twit didn’t seem to notice the difference between RAC (Royal Armoured Corps – tanks) and RASC (Royal Army Service Corps – services), so six of us RAC chaps were sent by mistake to Scotland as clerks! This I would consider a happy accident. As we passed through London the returning British Expeditionary Force filled the streets. There was a carnival atmosphere as women volunteers handed out soup, sandwiches and tea to all and sundry. Some of the heroes were in poor shape from the strafing and exhaustion. German Messerschmidts had been enjoying the fun – rather like shooting fish in a barrel.

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