Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Monday 12th June 1939

One of the men in my section is named Stripe. “Aye, Stripe” said Fenning as we sat smoking by the roadside during a halt, “Report to Ron Sorrell. He wants you!”
“Aw, d’you think I’m a mug?” grinned Stripe. I chuckled as I imagined the scene if he had been a mug:-

“Do you want me Sorrell?”
“Who the hell are you?”
“Stripe”

Everyone knows that Sorrell wants to be a lance-jack! Coincidentally, Sergeant Quayle took me aside just as we dismounted and were strolling from the gun park at lunchtime. “What do you think of Ling? Good enough for a stripe? We’re giving out two or three today”. Naturally I gave emphatic approval so far as Stan’s work at the Command Post was concerned!

In the Command Post we have had several recruits who’ve come and gone but always, beside Ling and I, there has been Fenning (CP operator); Rose (CP messenger); Moore and Burch. It took me several days to distinguish between Moore and Burch. Many times I’ve greeted, say Moore, to be told sourly that I’m speaking to Burch! I know them now however. Moore is quick and clever and inclined to be insolent and “monthly”. Burch is slow and does as he is told. Fenning is supposed to be the awkwardest little sod in the unit but actually we get on quite well, perhaps because we like each other.

RAF planes from the nearby aerodrome were stunting above the Camp just after lunch. Apparently two wings touched in mid-air, suddenly a plane crashed. I heard shouts of “Fire!” turned round, saw a vast column of smoke rise about quarter of a mile away, at the edge of the forest. Then things happened swiftly. Ran like hell – a mob rushing across the parade ground – the red-faced Major appeared – “Fall in 339!” – silence, two ranks of men, discipline.

“I want ten men…” (He won’t choose me)… “Ten NCO’s” (God, I’m an NCO now!) Ten men in a moment. “Away you go. Sergeant Quayle take charge!” “Like this – in shit order?” gasped one wooden man as we raced towards the nearest lorry. Nobody answered. He didn’t bother to change… Jump into a lorry already moving – rush out of camp and down the road – wind in my hair – thrill! – “Let the Colonel take the lead!”
Blazing crumpled wreckage. “Anyhow, the pilot must have been killed outright”.

Crack! Crack! As the bullets exploded. RAF planes roared low, circling above the wreckage as birds swoop above a crippled mate. RAF tender came. Fire extinguishers. (Will there be one for me). Now, right up against the plane… at the base of the flames… roar, crackle, crack! crack! My extinguisher would not work for a moment. Sergeant Quayle got it going and handed it back to me. (Mr Branford on the roof at the Works, years ago…). Spray from someone else’s extinguisher fell on me. “Get back there!” Empty. Flames still leaping upwards. “Old soldiers, this way!”

Sergeant Quayle turned and went into the bushes. I followed him making my face expressionless. A Sergeant Major looks at us.(“No, I’m not an old soldier but I’m used to this”) He says nothing. We both pass him. (Now I’m going to see a dead man)
A little clearing on the lee side of the blazing wreck. (My God, he’s not dead. He’s been here all this time. This is the thing it’s done; this is it’s work). Crouched on its back in a ditch. No fingers left hand. Charred uniform. Bloody face, open mouth. Bloody tongue moves in – out – in – out.

“Ahhh! Ahhh! Ahhh!” Each time he breathes, that horrible noise. Nothing to do yet. (Oh God, don’t let me feel sick, don’t let me feel sick). A long clean bone sticking out of his heel. (But where’s the boot? Oh! That’s not the heel, it’s part of the shin. His foot’s gone.)

A policeman, two officers, two airmen, two soldiers. “Shall I get another extinguisher, Sir?” asks a cool voice. (His sexual organs, showing through the charred clothing, still smoulder…) “Yes,” says the officer. They put that out.
Spray falls on us. “Lucky we’re in overalls, Sergeant” I say, as the spray splashes down from beyond the wreckage. Roar of planes overhead, crackle of burning branches, roar of burning plane, shouts of men at the fire, crack! as another bullet explodes, groans, awful noises from it. (Why does not someone put him out of his misery?)

Here’s the stretcher. They put him on, cover him with blankets. The noises alter slightly. Carry him up to the ambulance. Cover his face as we reach the road. I see smoke under the stretcher and a small hole comes in the fabric. Extinguishers! (Ah, these small ones work in jets, like a pump.) I kneel in the road, spray under the stretcher and above, till he is out again. The ambulance drives away.

The Sergeant and I seem to be the only Territorials left. We get in a small truck and go to camp. We walk slowly across to the Signals tent, stand there pensively, smoking. (Everyone else at work. Don’t move for a minute or two, no need to hurry back to work!) A raw recruit runs up; he wants to know something. “Got any wireless headphones, please Sergeant?” We get back to work. “You look grim Sergeant!”
“So would you, mate, if you’d had the job Dawson and I have had…”

Evening: Shead, Ling, Pond and Dean each get a stripe. I found Dean almost morosely sewing on his stripe, whilst Ron Sorrell, in the same tent raved furiously at the unfairness of stripes being given to recruits like Ling and Pond, whilst trained men were missed!

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