Letters from Poolewe. Part 3

Tues., 14 Mar. 1944.

Yesterday we climbed Slioch, a 3,200 ft mountain. There was a notice at the bottom, 'No climbing after July 20th', so evidently the latter half of the year is worse. We had a particularly unpleasant day for it, however. We were climbing in a hailstorm most of the way and for the last mile we went over deep, crisp snow, which held in most places but in one or two unlucky patches let us down to above the knees. We approached the summit from the side that afforded most shelter and got within a few hundred yards of the highest point but the Company Commander decided that it wasn't worthwhile pushing on to the top. It was so steep we were having to crawl, digging our rifles into the snow and holding our faces out of the hail. It was certainly exhilarating. In the last course one poor chap was blown off the top and broke his neck. It took them six hours to get him down to the bottom and he was very lucky to get away with his life.

At the end of the day, after a long march towards camp when we were just looking forward to dinner, a surprise was sprung on us. The CSM appeared on the road and said the camp had been burnt down (it hadn't, of course) and we would have to stop the night in some disused Nissen huts about seven miles from camp. We were handed raw rations to cook. We had been told very casually the day before that it was the custom to leave our large packs ready with groundsheet, blanket and anything we might need at the foot of our beds so that they could be brought out to us in the event of our being stranded. Several people hadn't done this, or hadn't put in what they'd need. Luckily I'd stuffed mine full of warm clothes, greatcoat and blanket so I wasn't in the slightest perturbed. I slept very well last night in fact. There was a house not far from these huts and some of the others suggested going there to see if we could get a cup of tea. I didn't like the idea of asking somebody else to give us something out of their rations but I went with them since they asked me. Five of us went. We took part of our tea ration with us, which was a good idea. We were extraordinarily lucky. It was a big house and we were asked into the kitchen and given tea, boiled eggs, bread and butter and jam prepared by the lady of the house and the maid! We all spent a much better night after that, of course, and prided ourselves on the fact that we'd "used our initiative" -- as the O.C. is always urging us to do.

Today, having returned on lorries, we practised jumping off moving lorries up to 12 m.p.h., in full equipment with rifles. We also had a bayonet assault course.

Tues., 21 Mar. 1944.

Our going to see Le Roi S'Amuse, which is such an excellent film, was a fine ending to my three days at home. I got to York as scheduled and by good fortune met two of the people I'd arranged to see there. In about five minutes' time the Aberdonian Express came in, very crowded. We didn't get seats until people got out at Newcastle. It's quite a different route from the one I travelled up by at the beginning of the course. We have just passed over the Forth Bridge. It's now about 6-45 a.m. and just getting light. I hope we're in this train long enough for breakfast but we have to change at Dundee, which is not very far off now.

Tues., 21 Mar. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 9585.]

From what people say, the course ends on April 23rd and we go on leave on the 24th, which is a Monday. I put the camp address above without thinking but sad to say I'm not there yet. The train was 135 minutes late at Dundee and we missed the connection. There are about a dozen of us here (nearly all Yorkshire people) who were on that train. We had our passes endorsed by the RTO at Dundee explaining that the train was late. By later connections we have now got as far as Achnasheen. We arrived here at half-past seven instead of half-past three and there is no transport of any kind to take us the other forty miles to Poolewe tonight. We are consequently putting up at the 'transit camp', a large house not far from Achnasheen station, where we will have a comfortable night on camp beds and go on to Poolewe in the morning.

Thurs., 23 Mar. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 3300.]

I arrived exactly twenty-four hours late in Poolewe. There is only one bus a day from Achnasheen -- at least, there are several buses but they only run at the one time, when the afternoon train arrives. We had rock climbing without ropes this morning. (By the way, nothing was said about us coming in late.) Being near Pool House is a great advantage. I'm sitting in front of a red-hot fire in an easy chair and truth to tell I'm very drowsy at the moment.

Fri., 24 Mar. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 452.]

Both in the rock climbing yesterday and in the abseiling which we had today we were instructed by a major who is said to be a well-known Lake District mountaineer and rock climber. He certainly seems to almost run up rock faces, where we have to search about for holds and ledges. Abseiling is not very difficult: you have to lean back on the rope until your body is almost horizontal, with the feet flat against the rock surface. We had to come down a seventy-foot cliff this way. I remembered my knots O.K. but I didn't have to rely on the safety rope at all. I don't think anyone got into difficulties.

This afternoon we had a 'hill walk'. They are known under that mild term but they usually involve a good bit of doubling. We took it in turns to lead and I had to lead the section back to camp from a hill several miles away. We also had to try and get back in half an hour, so I decided to go straight across country although there were one or two small hills in the way. I'd forgotten about the steep crags just behind the camp and at the last moment I had to lead off more to the left in the hope of finding a path down, which there was, luckily. I thought our officer was going to object that I hadn't studied the map sufficiently. Instead, much to my surprise and relief, when we got back he said it was a good policy on certain occasions to go straight forward and hope there will be a path.

Sun., 26 Mar. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 2401.]

[Top two thirds of page cut out by Examiner, possibly to censor material on the other side of the page, remainder of which follows.] We've been issued with special clothing for the big exercises [Large passage cut out.] You'll gather that we look twice the men we were before with the whole of the outfit on. The climate is not so bad as all this would imply, however, thank goodness. For the march today I wore nothing more than the string vest under my denims and was quite warm enough. I may not be able to write while I'm on Skye but I'll write as soon as we get back.

Sun., 2 Apr. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 2391.]

We arrived back late last night from Skye (I understand it's all right to mention the name after the exercise. There are lots of things I could write about it, and indeed I had written eight sides already yesterday afternoon in Kyle of Lochalsh while waiting for the train back to Achnasheen after the ferry journey from the island, but I think (after having a good part of my last letter cut out) I'd better not refer to the training in any detail. I think we've all learnt how easily information can be picked up by spies, for in the scheme each side had three fifth columnists. Our three didn't do much good, unfortunately -- their main use was to bolster morale by turning up unexpectedly in strange disguises. The three of them started off in respectable civilian lounge suits but they were all caught by the enemy, who pinched their clothes and they all ended up in workmen's blue overalls! We slept in village schoolhouses, by the way, not in the open, thank goodness. ... We all got several eggs on Skye at farmhouses and crofts.

An extraordinary thing happened this morning, unprecedented in army history I should think: the orderly sergeant (who's duty was being done by the CSM) forgot to wake. Reveille should have been at 6-30 a.m. but we were all so tired after yesterday that not a single person woke or got up till 9-30, when eventually the company clerk was woken up by one of the officers who had come over from the mess -- and the clerk, in turn, woke us up. The CSM, probably having been ticked off by the company commander later blamed the platoon commanders for not getting their own men up, but we thought this very unfair as it is always the orderly sergeant's duty.

Tomorrow I'll be in an easy chair at Pool House most of the day. There's a thirty-six-hour scheme on Wednesday and a four-day one next Saturday.

Monday, 3 Apr. 1944.

This free day I came over to Pool House early. In fact I was there fully half an hour before anyone else and had the reading room to myself just as if it was my own study! I had a letter-writing session first of all. I put in one or two anecdotes about Skye: about the fifth columnists and about the enemy cancelling our suppers. I don't think I told you that one. The enemy scored a good point the first day by ringing up the canteen at Kyle and telling them to cancel the hot meal that had been arranged for us that night at 10 p.m.! Luckily they were still able to do us some food when we got there. We played a good trick on the enemy by placing a false copy of our orders where one of their fifth columnists could steal it. This led them to climb a 2000 ft mountain on a complete wild goose chase.

The scenery on Skye is simply glorious. The Cuillin Hills in the west of the island contain some huge mountains whose precipitous sides slope right down to the sea or to a loch. Golden eagles nest on some of the high, inaccessible rock ledges. The Youth Hostel at Glenbrittle, where we slept on the last night before leaving the island, is very well situated. It's empty now of course because Skye is a restricted area. Our fifth columnists did themselves well in one of the hotels on the island whenever they could! There are some quite good hotels there. It's a place I'd like to visit again -- under more favourable circumstances.

Tues., 4 Apr. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 630.]

We were reshuffled again today. I'm now in 2 Platoon. My last captain interviewed us all before we left his platoon. He seems to have given me quite a good report: good leadership and good mucking in with the others when not in command! We have a rather novel compass march tomorrow. We set off in threes at different times and have to march nearly twenty miles purely by compass bearings, touching various points where, if we approach them on an accurate line, we'll be handed tickets entitling us to blankets and dinner and breakfast at the other end where we sleep. If we're off the line we get a ticket saying, 'Breakfast without tea and porridge', 'One blanket instead of two', or something like that. To safeguard us against getting completely lost we do carry sealed maps, only to be opened in an emergency. Flares are also to be put up to guide anyone lost after dark. I'm pretty sure of my compass work, luckily.

Thurs., 6 Apr. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 3216.]

Tomorrow, Good Friday, at 11 a.m. we have a church service. On Saturday we leave camp for a three-day seventy-mile scheme. Yesterday's compass march was quite tough going; there were several hills and one mountain on the route we had to follow. Everybody was in before dark or soon after. In my group we lost our potatoes for being a hundred yards out at one check point. Luckily, however, we were able to melt the cook's heart by our powers of persuasion and obtain our full rations. Many people went without, however. Some weren't allowed pudding and a few got no breakfast at all the next morning for missing out one point on the march. It rained in the afternoon yesterday. It's about the first real wetting we've had. When we got to the mill where we were going to spend the night we were all fairly dead beat and fed up. I climbed the wooden steps to the hay loft, where most of the floor space was already bagged by parties who had set out earlier. There was still room on top of a pile of hay, however, so I scrambled up there, on my way accidentally kicking against someone already trying to get to sleep on the floor, covered in hay, which provoked loud oaths. Taking off my pack I undid it and placed it at the back, by the wall. To my great surprise it promptly disappeared and if I hadn't been holding on to one of the long straps I'd have had to go down and find it in the horses' hay box! There was a space at the back of the upper floor where hay could be fed down to the horses. Eventually I got organised and took off my wet denims and vest and changed my socks -- not forgetting to put my boots back on again straight away so I wouldn't lose them. I put on my shirt and two pullovers (we have an extra one) and other denims and my woollen cap and gloves and pulled up my two blankets (conveyed by lorry) and slept very warmly and comfortably. Funny how we dress, not undress, at night. In the morning we paraded outside the mill at eight, after breakfast, and those who hadn't shaved or whose rifles were dirty were made to walk all the way back to camp -- fifteen miles! There were about twenty of them but I think they managed to hitch-hike. The rest of us were taken by lorry most of the way.