Letters from Poolewe - Part 1

In the train, between Blair Atholl and Inverness.

Monday, 14 February 1944.

For distance alone the journey is something quite new to me. I don't know how many hundreds of miles it is but the whole thing, from Euston to Achnasheen, takes twenty hours. So far there hasn't been a change. This train goes right up to Inverness, where it should arrive at about 10-30 a.m. We reach Achnasheen at 2 and go on by lorry to the camp, which is at Poolewe, on the west coast.

There was no parade for people on the course at Euston but there are probably about a hundred of them on this train, which we were all told to catch. There are two of them in this carriage besides me and they seem quite decent chaps. There are also a Scottish QM Sergeant and a Scottish infantryman who are going on leave and are both very friendly. I got some sleep during the night. I remember passing through Crewe, which was the first stop, but not Glasgow or any intermediate stops, so I got a good deal of rest, I think. The carriage was nicely heated and we had all stocked ourselves with sandwiches from the Euston YMCA. I also had the Sunday papers still unread, so the travelling was not unpleasant. At dawn the attendant announced breakfast and we went along to the dining car together. It was then that we first dimly saw the wild, mountainous moorland scenery, with the moon still up in a clear sky. It's going to be a fine day. We saw the snow on some of the peaks and felt how much colder it was then, too. The breakfast was tea, porridge, sausage and scrambled egg or kippers (I had kippers) and toast and jam. It was served well and tasted good. It was 2/9. After that we went back to the carriage and washed, then wiped the condensed moisture from the windows and sat back to look at the scenery as we passed up through Pitlochry and Blair Atholl.

No.1 Company, HFTC, Poolewe.

14 February 1944.

My letters from Poolewe will probably be very dull because of the censorship. For a start, we are told not to refer to either the weather or the nature of the country - both of which are good stock subjects at all times! We do get a magnificent view from where we are, however -- in fact the scenery was superb at every point during the road journey from Achnasheen, which, as the map will show, is nearly forty miles from Poolewe. I could write a lot but it's difficult to know exactly what the censor would object to. Several other people in the Naafi, where I'm writing this, are also wondering what to say. One of them humorously suggested putting, 'Can't tell you much now but all the details when I come on leave -- (Censor please note)'.

We sleep in wooden camp beds in quite comfortable wooden huts -- it might have been bunks and Nissen huts. As you know, the course is ten weeks long -- not fourteen as I was told at first. After the first five weeks, if the War Office has not recalled me by that time, I'll get five days' leave. In this place I resume the unstable rank of cadet for the time and we wear blue shoulder bands.

Tuesday, 15 February 1944.

I thought I'd write a line again tonight. The real course doesn't start till tomorrow. Today we've been drawing rifles and a few extra items of kit and have had lectures from the CO and the Company Commander who, talking about letters, said it didn't really matter what we said about the weather because it's always raining anyway.

I resume this letter after half an hour's interval owing to the lights breaking down. They don't simply go right out at once, they fade gracefully away -- as the dynamo slows down and stops, I suppose, for the electricity is generated on the spot.

Apparently we have the whole of Saturday free every week here and carry on normal work all day Sunday. On Saturday we can go to Poolewe. It is on the banks of Loch Ewe; there is only about one cottage there besides a small hotel but there's also a YMCA hostel.

Wednesday, 16 February 1944.

Today things began very gently. After a kit check, a lecture on elementary map reading, followed by lesson 1 on the Bren -- all very simple. This afternoon was rather more strenuous and we got our first soaking doing the various crawls on the wet grass. The sergeant instructor in charge was a deer stalker before the war and was quite at home in this type of country. Most of the place names round about are very beautiful; a lot of the names on the map are unpronounceable Gaelic, however.

The meals we've had here so far have been excellent. They are served up on OCTU lines but much more efficiently and more pleasantly than in the ATS-run Catterick cookhouse, for instance. The menu so far has been something like this: breakfast -- porridge, bacon and potato (or something fried); lunch -- something savoury (hot cheese, spam, etc.), with bread and butter and jam, tea and a bun; dinner at 5-30 has consisted of three courses -- some very good soup, followed by meat and vegetables, and pudding. There's a film show in the lecture hut tonight. The film is Commandos Strike at Dawn.

Thursday, 17 February 1944.

Today we had a four-mile cross-country run across very rough country. We had to go half way up a mountain in the first part and it was pretty tough going, I thought. I came in ninth out of about 130. I think I was second in my platoon. There was a big advantage in not being too late in, because there was a big queue for the hot showers after the first few people. Tomorrow we're going to have a lecture on 'Hints on Hill Walking'. Someone remarked with rather dry humour that it would be useful for cross-country runs, anyway. We had some simple observation tests this morning. I wasn't so hot at the most elementary part of it -- writing down a list of objects on a tray viewed for sixty seconds. I got 15 out of 20. Most people got 17 or over. We also had to write brief 'police' descriptions from memory of the commandant and the CSM. I almost described the CO's moustache as a'Blimp' moustache, which would have been unwise, perhaps. The word I put was 'walrus'. My descriptions were marked 'very good' by the platoon captain, so I must have guessed most of the details correctly. There were quite a lot of 'fairs and 'poors'. Another test consisted of a walk along a track, on either side of which, within 15 or 20 yards were concealed several unusual objects. When we came to collect them in, the instructor himself couldn't find one (a small pack, which he said was hidden in a tuft of grass). It eventually appeared that the sergeant in charge of the previous platoon to do the test had removed it. Our sergeant was caught out, since he'd been saying to us at first, 'Surely you can see it over there.' We practised some of the assault course obstacles today and tomorrow we go over the whole thing. It's my turn for section commander tomorrow, too.