Letters from Poolewe. Part 4

Fri., 7 Apr. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 6347.]

We had a Good Friday service here this morning. We have a padre attached to the HFTC now; he's quite a good chap. Last Good Friday at Catterick we had hot-cross-buns at breakfast time and fish for dinner in the normal civilian way. There were no buns this morning however, and our fish was sardines mixed with mashed potato, hot, which we had at tea-time. It was quite tasty but not the fish one usually thinks of. Today has been a fairly restful prelude to a hectic three days starting tomorrow. We had a spot of PT, and a discussion this afternoon on 'The Efficiency of Public Services'. I said a few words in praise of the way the government has co-ordinated the railway services during the war, organising transport for war purposes and leaving quite a reasonable amount of railway space, in the circumstances, for people travelling about. I'm rather disheartened to find that everybody is very reactionary here. They were all against government control or planning in any sphere. Some people even suggested commercial broadcasting. In fact, I wouldn't have been a bit surprised if someone had stood up and suggested having about half-a-dozen privately owned postal services all competing to deliver our letters, instead of the one government controlled post office. One man actually did suggest that telephone services should be owned by local private companies, as is, I believe, the case with the sole obstinate example of Hull. The general view seems undoubtedly to be that anything planned and run by the government for the whole country is bound to be a shambles. From what one reads in the papers, the overseas forces, at least, think on more intelligent and progressive lines.

I'm writing from the depths of one of Pool House's easiest chairs, in front of a big red fire. I was unwise enough to be seen reading the World's Press News earlier and I've just been canvassed by someone who is going to edit a company magazine that one of the officers is going to organise. They want a humorous article that has a bearing on the course by next Friday. I said I'd try and do something so I'm now going to settle down and attempt to think something out. After that (I probably won't get anything written tonight) I must hie me back to camp to pack for tomorrow's excursion.

Tues., 11 April 1944. [Opened by Examiner 9385.]

I got your letters last night , after we got back from Exercise Torridon. Torridon is the name of the loch and the range of mountains over which the exercise takes place. No live ammunition was used but at one point an ambush was arranged for us and some high explosive went up not far from our track. Each platoon had a different task to complete on the first day. Ours was to capture a certain house, which we reached in the afternoon after marching twenty miles across country. Two of the sergeants, dressed up in German uniforms, were defending it. After capturing it we had to keep up a guard on the house all night, each man donning one of the German uniforms as he went on guard. The house turned out to be an old youth hostel, with beds and palliasses, so we were very lucky. Since we have to carry all we need on schemes like this and the one on Skye, nobody takes blankets. We just carry a few extra clothes for the night, or for if we get wet. There was a good stove at this place for our cooking, too. The rations had to be picked up at another RV, which was found without much difficulty. The rations we got on this exercise and on Skye were excellent - three-men packs of the type that are used in action. I don't think it's bad security if I tell you what's in them: you've probably read it in the papers. All the stuff is in tins: there's a tin of biscuits for each man, containing eighteen hard, round biscuits, which are very good by themselves as iron rations; a tin of baked beans; a tin of meat and vegetables; a tin of sausage meat; some corned beef; sardines; a quarter-pound tin of cheese; and one of jam; a tin of tea-milk-sugar powder; lemonade powder; and, best of all, a tin of twenty boiled sweets. [Twenty boiled sweets? Surely I must be wrong. It doesn't divide by three. -- Author.] All that is for three people for twenty-four hours. I'm sure when you read that impressive list you'll be wishing you could have been on the exercise, too! In addition, on the first night, somebody went to a nearby farm and managed to buy forty eggs! So we all had one for supper and one for breakfast, boiled. We pooled our eats and two people cooked for the whole platoon.

One chap in the platoon had to drop out after the first day because his feet were hurting him; and from the rest of the company there were several others. Our task on the second day was to blow up an enemy building. We took actual explosives. Five men were detailed to carry packets of amanol (stuff like TNT) in their packs. I was rather glad I wasn't one of them. The route was again about twenty miles and started off by a walk from sea level up the slope of a very steep mountain, 2000 feet high, right to the top and down the other side. The building we had to blow up was already derelict: it was an old croft. We didn't knock any more of it down, however, as only part of the explosive went off. The rest must have been damp, I think. We scattered the powder over the heather. If someone starts a heath fire there it will probably burn more vigorously but it won't explode, since the powder was spread very thinly. That night we slept on a concrete floor in a forestry camp hut. We had a good stove again and plenty of wood to burn. On Easter Monday we were woken up at quarter to five and told to move off at once and attack a place twelve miles away. Luckily our fire was going and we managed to make some tea and eat a quick breakfast before moving. After the attack, where we made more tea, we did another twelve miles back to camp.

Today has been comparatively easy, Ostensibly to keep us awake, this afternoon we had a 'garbage hunt'. We had to collect or do nine things, which included: (1) getting a stone 2ft by 1ft by 6ins, to which a fish's tail had to be tied with brown string -- the only fish we could muster was a sardine! (we did this competition by platoons, not individually); (2) making a stove that was suitable for cooking food for three men; (3) procuring three half-pennies dated 1921; (4) getting copies of two of the following: Hamlet; the radio programme for April 1st; a 1943 newspaper; No Orchids for Miss Blandish -- we got the first two; (5) producing one hard-boiled egg; etc. My platoon managed to do everything except get one of the half-pennies but we weren't the first to finish. The result hasn't come out yet.

Thurs., 13 Apr. 1944.

I've left it too late to write properly tonight. We've been out on an all-day exercise till 8 p.m. And yesterday, the free day, I didn't write any letters. I spent most of the morning doing the magazine article -- making fun of the way people will exaggerate what they have been doing when they go on leave. For the rest of the day, between eating, I read Boswell's Life of Johnson, which I found very enjoyable. I'm sorry to have to tell you that we can't now count on leave. I only heard this tonight.

Fri., 14 Apr. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 6289.]

Thanks very much indeed for the lovely buns and Ovaltine tablets and Malted Milk tablets in the parcel and especially for the sweets. I'll post my dirty pyjamas and a few other things in a day or two -- or probably not till next Saturday, because we'll be very busy this week with the WOSB. In fact the energy tablets are just opportune for the "pass the ammunition" course, which takes place under the eyes of all the brass hats on Sunday! We also have a two-day exercise in this last week. Tomorrow, as part of the Selection Board tests, we are split up into groups of three to reconnoitre an area of ground and plan an exercise of our own. In the afternoon, we direct our own exercise and do the exercises of other groups. Let's hope nobody is too ingenious in devising obstacles of torture to spoil our afternoon!

Innumerable conflicting rumours about leave are flying about. This morning we were told by the Company Commander that there was very little hope of our getting any. One of the latest rumours, however, is that we will get it. Tonight, before the WOSB starts in real earnest, there is the company concert, which has been under rehearsal for some time past. It should be very good. Apparently the padre went to one of the rehearsals and censored several items that were in doubtful taste.

Sun., 16 Apr. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 6401.]

It appears that all army leave has been stopped indefinitely. I didn't put this in my last letter because I thought it might be censorable but I believe now that there was something about it in the papers. If there's no leave we'll probably all be sent back to our units for a time and those who pass will go on to Wrotham later. We'll be told our results a week today -- Sunday evening. On the 'pass the ammunition' obstacle course today I was in charge of the first obstacle, a thirty-foot cliff. There was a handy tree on top, where we could slip our rope round, both to lower the ammunition boxes down with it and to climb down it ourselves. In his summing up at the end, the Chief Instructor said I had got them over that obstacle more quickly than it had been done by any previous section. Altogether, today hasn't been too bad, because I think I got on quite well in the interview with the Vice-President of the WOSB, a Lieutenant Colonel. No.4 Platoon, who were on their two-day exercise yesterday and today, found themselves getting ahead of the MTO (Military Testing Officer) who is attached to them. MTOs have a very sedentary life and must find it a strain up here. However, 4 Platoon asked their Platoon Officer if they could have his permission to leave the MTO behind. He must have had a down on the poor man, for his reply was, 'You go ahead! You have every permission I can give you.'

Tues., 18 Apr. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 2088.]

All we have now before the end of the course is the two-day exercise, starting tomorrow, during which we shall be continually under the eye of the Military Testing Officer. We talk about nothing but leave in the barrack room in the evenings. Nobody really seems to know anything about it, so two or three rumours are almost a nightly fetish. They say the RSM was heard to tell someone tonight that we should be going on leave, but the RSM was drunk. A sergeant has just come in and told us he knows leave is definitely off.

Thurs., 20 Apr. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 6341.]

Our last scheme finished today. We had a dickens of a long march yesterday and the worst of it was we were led about five miles out of the way. The WOSB officer put someone in charge who made a mistake in his map reading and took us in an entirely wrong direction. I was put in charge to get us back on the right track again and managed to do that all right. Today we had to build a rough and ready bridge out of logs and ropes across a twenty-foot stretch of water, on to an island in a small loch. It had to be strong enough for our MTO to walk across. One of the other platoons built a flimsy bridge and their MTO went in the water -- which would not make him any more favourably disposed to them when it comes to sending in his report. Our poor MTO trudged along behind us yesterday and this morning and hardly seemed to lift his eyes from his feet. I don't think he can have had the energy left to write any notes about us! We built him a nice steady bridge, anyway. We were all pretty tired out yesterday evening and I found the Ovaltine tablets a godsend. Seven or eight people whose feet hurt them dropped out and waited for a lorry on the nearest road, leaving only fourteen in the platoon. We arrived at the large, empty house, which was to be our billet for the night, at about 9 p.m. It was midnight before we had prepared our supper. However, it tasted very good by candlelight. We boiled some potatoes, which we had with tinned herrings and also made some tea. We each had to do forty minutes' guard duty during the night. I was lucky: mine was from 12-40 t0 1-20 a.m., so I didn't split the night and I got five hours good sleep. I was one of two people who took a blanket in their pack. Personally, I thought the extra weight was well worth it on this occasion.

I still have the pleasure of reading the New Statesman and the Sunday Times to look forward to. There'll be plenty of time tomorrow, too, since all we do is parade for a few seconds before the whole of the Selection Board and our own officers. The results come out on Sunday night. If I pass, I may be going to pre-OCTU at Sandhurst, instead of Wrotham, which has now split up.

Sun., 23 Apr. 1944. [Opened by Examiner 9230.]

I've passed, anyway. More people passed than on previous courses. There were about 30% failures. Six out of the nineteen in my platoon were RTU-ed. The Major was in his office this afternoon for anyone who cared to call and ask for particulars about his work. As it happened, I was one of several people who were bagged by the CSM to shovel up some ashes into a rubbish cart, so I was engaged at that time! but I don't think I would have gone to see him even if I had been free. At various times during the course loads of people have been interviewed by the CO and the Company Commander and have had their faults pointed out to them. As I've never been summoned to the office of either of them I think I can assume that I'm satisfactory at the moment. As a matter of fact, Captain Downton, my last platoon officer, said my previous reports had been good and that he himself had given me a very good one. Tomorrow we are all travelling south in a body, escorted by officers and sergeants. Those of us who have passed for Infantry Rifles are going, not to Wrotham, but to an offshoot of it at Camberley. By the way, if you get a couple of bulky parcels at your door in a day or two, open them carefully. Guess what -- sh! eggs! Several of us have managed to get some to send home from the farms round here I've sent roughly three dozen home and a dozen to Geoff [at Cambridge].

There has been an unmistakable end-of-term feeling about the camp in the lst few days, in spite of our not getting any leave. Yesterday afternoon some people were fooling about with blank ammunition in the hut and one chap wanted to put a match to some of it to see how it went off. Luckily he was stopped. It would have been very silly in the hut. Later we decided to light the stove and fry ourselves an egg each in a mess tin, as a sort of celebration. When the fire was nicely going there was a muffled explosion that violently shook the stove and nearly knocked the mess tin off the top. It was followed by four other bangs, like a slow machine gun, while we all held our breath in astonishment. Some ass must have dropped the blanks in the stove. Last night there was an astonishing outburst of hooliganism. Throughout the weeks here, a common form of reproach has been, 'In the loch with him!' After the dance last night some wild persons, probably drunk, decided to lead a party to put this phrase into practice in the case of the Regimental Policeman, who is disliked by some. As far as I can gather, a load of thunderflashes was stolen from the stores and a mob surrounded the guard room exploding them all round and even down the chimney, in an effort to get the unfortunate man out. One story has it that the prisoner's blankets were set alight by a firework exploding inside. The man stayed in and eventually the gang was dispersed by the sergeant-major. I write from hearsay and scanty knowledge, because I was in bed. Only two others from my hut were in bed at the time, however, and there must have been quite a crowd outside. The Company Commander today threatened the people who stole the thunderflashes with close arrest if they were caught. He said nothing against the spirit of the thing. What he really objected to was the mess left by all the spent firework cases left lying about. He went on to say that if there was any more 'practical joking' tonight he hoped there wouldn't be any more mess or anything broken. I didn't go to it, but the dance was quite a success, I believe. Apparently, lorry loads of WRENs and VADs were imported for the occasion.

We had an excellent talk from Lt Col Lord Rowallan about the responsibilities of an officer. Afterwards there was a special prayer composed by the Chaplain-General for the HFTC, which one cadet read and which the padre followed by his blessing. There was a full church service earlier.

Somewhere between Perth and Carlisle. Mon., 24 Apr. 1944.

A special part of the train is reserved for us. There is no change from Inverness to Euston. I think we were all sorry to leave Poolewe. The whole organisation of the HFTC, especially (I think) in No. 1 Company -- the other Company had several accidents -- is so efficient and everything went so smoothly that these ten weeks have been the most enjoyable that any of us have had in the army. To finish off the course last night we had some jolly community singing in the YMCA canteen under the padre's direction and a vote of thanks was given to Mr Forbes and all the YMCA helpers.

Some of the people who failed have been recommended for immediate posting overseas and to be sent back to go to OCTU after six months if they are then found suitable. They will certainly be getting a commission the hard way.

Brian Baldwin