By Fred Sole
This article was published in the December 2015 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society
Ed: After his 17th birthday (1944), Fred volunteered for army service for the duration of the emergency. cy’. On the 2nd January 1945 he was on my way to ‘C’ Company of the 28th Training Battalion at Palace Barracks in Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland. We rejoin Fred’s Memory Ramble as he takes up soldering for real…
Palace Barracks, in Holywood, Northern Ireland was, and I am sure still is, an impressive establishment. Its large barrack square and numerous surrounding redbrick buildings with the tall and imposing clock tower, were obviously intended for a large and permanent body of military personnel long before our time. It had, however, been greatly extended by a lot of long wooden huts housing all the necessary additional accommodation facilities and a large ‘mess hall’, gymnasium and subsidiary ‘square’. The extension was always known as ‘The Camp’.
Our intake was split into five Companies – A, B, C, D and E. A and B Companies were lucky, they were housed in the barrack buildings, we in C, D and E were put into the Camp. I became part of 14 Platoon in ‘C’ Company. Other platoons of ‘C’ Company were 15 and 16.
How we had been allocated we never really knew but ultimately we were happy about it. About 95% of 14 were Elementary schoolboys. 15 consisted of Grammar schoolboys with 5 or 6 like us, whereas 16 was very quickly dubbed ‘upper crust’. I am sure it wasn’t completely deserved but service judgement can be quick and wickedly cruel!
Our first week was spent in undergoing various medical checks, being stabbed and scratched during inoculations, measured for and provided with uniforms, issued with a rifle and bayonet and shown how to make up beds and lay out kit for inspection. At the end of the week each company was paraded for the C.O. and the Padre’s addresses. The C.O. said that we had all been posted to ‘The 28th’ because we were all volunteers and our histories showed that, although not all had been Army Cadets, all were considered to have N.C.O. potential. If after six weeks that was confirmed we would be staying for a further 20 weeks for more concentrated training. If not, then we would either join our chosen Regiment or Corps where we would complete our training, or we would go to a ‘Remedial Centre’ – what I suppose today would be called a ‘Boot Camp’.
The padre was next up to inform us about the various church facilities that were available on site, and to issue warnings about the consequences of ‘inadvisable liaisons’. He stressed that those consequences were not restricted to official punishments by our military superiors!
Fortunately I stayed at the barracks to complete my training and in the process was promoted to Lance Corporal. Not exactly stratospheric, but enough to get me into the Corporals’ Mess where the atmosphere and the food (and the beer) was much better.
The second stage of the training was tough, (in capital letters!). Longer ‘forced’ marches, sometimes in ‘Field Service Marching Order’ (when you carried almost all your kit, some bedding and waterproofs, rifle and ammunition and took turns in carrying whatever other equipment was part of the exercise). Even a 2 inch mortar can get heavy after a few miles. Our ‘forced marches’ were ten minutes normal (120 paces per minute), five minutes at ‘the double’ (240 paces per minute), with a ten minute rest every hour. After about 4 hours even the officers were glad of an hour’s ‘mess time’.
During that final spell of training we had to cover bayonet training, attack and defence in the field, scaling walls and cliffs using ropes and negotiating barbed wire obstacles, without cutters and using all the Infantry weapons i.e machine guns, mortars, P.I.A.T.’s (Anti tank weapons), and hand grenades.
The end of training was marked by the Passing Out Parade where the whole battalion assembled for. After the final parade we were granted 7 days leave and told our ‘futures’. I was one of 4 or 5 retained as permanent staff instructors and I stayed with 14 platoon, ‘C’ Company. I was joined by a L/Cpl in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (Jock). Our Platoon Sergeant and Corporal were due for early release and left soon after the next intake arrived. Returning from leave I did it all again, this time – with Jock – responsible for 9 ‘newbies’.
Things were changing fast however and that intake proved to be the last of its kind. Staff numbers were being reduced by demobilisation and the role of the station was changing due to the need to accommodate ‘regular’ men returning from overseas.
On my return from my next leave I had to report to the Battalion Captain Quartermaster’s Office where I was told I had to take over the Accommodation Stores Clerk job in place of a corporal who was due for release. He would arrange my accommodation in the Headquarters Block and I was to work with him during his last few weeks. I was surprised, but not really sorry. I had begun to realise that chasing new ‘squaddies’ around wet and muddy fields wasn’t exactly my thing. Life with the regiment surely would have been preferable? The other Black Watch man on the staff didn’t think so. “We’re lucky” he said “haven’t you heard, they are gearing up for a move to South East Asia – Burma. They’ll be warm out there in more senses than one!”
The new job proved to be fairly complicated at first but not difficult and, best of all, I was soon located in my own billet in one of my storerooms. The work included control of all the battalion bedding and blankets – issue, recovery and laundering – general barrack room furniture fittings and utensils, furniture fittings etc. in all of the Married Quarters (and there were a lot of those) and transfer of such goods to and from the Barrack Stores Depot at a small village called Crossgar a few miles away. It was a continually ‘busy’ job with a lot of accounting work and arranging my own transport with the MT section but I enjoyed it immensely.
A month or two later, the Fuel and Light Clerk in our office also saw the end of his service and his replacement was a Corporal in the East Surrey Regiment who had been stationed in Londonderry, Norman Wills. Fuel and Light was responsible for supply and control of all the electricity, gas and coal on the station and the records of usage. Norman was a Londoner from Dulwich and he and I hit it off well from the beginning and became good friends. We reorganised the billet I had in the blanket store, moved in another bed and furniture, and lived like kings. We made ourselves a ‘cooker’ from an old electric fire on which we could ‘brew up’, make toast (even a full fry-up!), and wash our socks and ‘smalls’ without risking the laundry!.
Norman had joined a year before me so he left for home first and I welcomed a new friend in his place, Alan Lovett. Pleasant though he was Alan never seemed to fit the job and he was posted away, which introduced me to yet another newcomer, David Nicholas-Williams (Nick). Nick and I were equally friendly but although I was able to keep in touch with Norman afterwards, I lost touch with Nick.
By this time, in spite of enjoying the work, I had realised that an army life wasn’t for me long term, and I remember discussing my next move with the civilian barrack officer, Mr. Mudd, my go-between with the Accommodation Stores Headquarters in Lisburn. He was approaching retirement himself and his opinion was that, as an ex-serviceman and used to discipline and regulation, I should attempt to join the Post Office. A return to the grocery trade would be a safe option but the Post Office could offer more opportunities for advancement, and the pension could be relied upon. If I had but followed that man’s advice!