World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Barry Davitt 

First Two Days In The Army

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Barry Shaun Davitt, Vincent Lawrence Davitt, Army No: 14896004
Location of story: Richmond, North Yorkshire
Unit name: Highland Light Infantry (H.L.I.)
Background to story: Army


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Barry Davitt.

September/October 1943.

My presence was required at the Green Howards Barracks at Richmond in Yorkshire. Here I was to be incarcerated with the barrack walls for ten weeks. On my final night at home my wife, son and I made our way to our respective parents’ homes on the Manor Estate. Here I said my goodbyes. The following morning I said goodbye to my wife and son and with leaden steps I made my way to the Midland Station. I handed in my travel warrant that had been sent to me and was informed which train I had to board and from which platform.

Trying to recollect that journey still fills me with loathing, at the end of the day I duly arrived at Richmond.

Never mind that ‘slop’ about King and Country it is a load of old codswallop. When they have finished with you, you’re fighting for yourself, King and Country do not exist. This is a battle for survival and you’re the survivor if you are lucky. Things must have been pretty rough when they sent for me, I didn’t have a notion how to win this war for them but I am glad to say it finally came to me in the end and we won. My primary task was to become a civilian as soon as possible but this was easier said than done. They had by devious means and ways landed me in India, China, Hong Kong, I was a long long way from home.

To be a raw recruit is humiliation to say the least. Life seems to have no meaning, there is no margin for error in anything. It seems to be an acknowledged fact to everyone in the British Army who has any authority that the new recruit should know everything about this strange new life that has been thrust upon him. He gets into trouble at every end and turn simply because he does not know and is repeatedly told he should know, and not knowing is no excuse, so begins this strange new life.

Confined to barracks is the first thing he encounters, there is a possibility we may abscond. What an absurd thought! Then the indoctrination begins, we were herded together in the barrack room by a Lance Corporal (this is authority with one stripe). Here we are met by two stripes and they three stripes, the Corporal and the Sergeant. The Sergeant introduced himself to us and then the two Corporals, and impresses on us all that although we are the worst looking bunch of humanity he has had the misfortune to meet he will, without any doubt make soldiers out of us; that’s what he things!, I think but he knows, I don’t. Anyway our first day is spent being inspected by Doctors (sorry M.O’s). The fashion seems to be nudism, we are very rarely dressed.
Somebody wants you to cough, somebody wants to look at something, somebody wants you to pass urine and so it goes on. They are satisfied eventually that you pass every requirement to be a soldier. That is in the way of a body. The next day comes the first taste of wakening, some fool stands out in the middle of the night blowing a bugle and before he has finished some other fool is removing the bedclothes from you. Then begins the realisation that this is the army. Shouting and bawling is the order of the day and out you get, faster than you ever though possible (no bouncing about laid in bed, pretending and trying to kid somebody that you are getting out). “Get ready and be outside in five minutes” nobody knows the time, there are no lights and everyone is trying to get washed and shaved in cold water. We still have our civilian clothes in which we dress and dash out into the pouring rain. A very hoarse voice is shouting to get into line but nobody knows what to do so we huddle together like drowned rats in the dark and try to fathom out if this place isn’t something of an asylum. The man with the three stripes comes tearing out of the darkness and threatens us with violence if we don’t get into line. We are lined up at last and the Sergeant calls our names out and shines a lamp on each man as he answer. He then tells us the time is 6a.m. sorry 06.00 hours and we shall be going for breakfast shortly at precisely 07.00 hours and it is still pouring down with rain and to while away the time he will read the rules and regulations.

There is a distinct possibility that the Military Hospital will be overcrowded before 07.00, we will all have got pneumonia. The Sergeant and Corporals have got army top coats and capes on but we are responsible for the rain, so the Sergeant tells us. Why did he have to have an unlucky mis-forgotten lot like us forced upon him. What had he done wrong to this British Army to be treated like this, we began to wonder who had the most misery, we or him. 07.00 hours arrives at last and we are paraded to the Dining Hall, we queue for breakfast, everyone is ready to eat anything. The cooks start shouting to us to get our plates ready. We have no plates or cups, somebody forgot to issue them. Alright get outside and line up. We get outside and line up, it is still pouring down, we are marched to the Stores and here we stand waiting for plates, pots until the storeman arrives at 08.00 hours. During this time the Sergeant and Corporals have left us, the storeman arrives and then tells us he can’t give us anything until the ‘Q’ arrives. What is the ‘Q’ we don’t know, he tells us he will be here at 09.00 hours so we must wait.

The ‘Q’ is a man we find out, actually the Quarter Master Sergeant and he will give us a plate and cup and a knife and fork and spoon, but the storeman says it will not do any good ‘cus you are all too late for breakfast now and it is still pouring down with rain. This is what makes men of us, I think they say. The Q.M. finally arrives at the stores but apparently does not notice us stood in the rain “What have we on for today storeman?” he says. The storeman replies “There is a bunch of Bods outside that wants an issue” (Bods means us). “Somebody wants an issue, where?” “There is going to be trouble for somebody, sending them at this late hour of the day”. This is sarcasm at its best, but as no one will see I am still thinking civilian wise, I am not adapting to my new life. Our Sergeant is sent for by the Q.M. and asks, “What’s the idea parading Bods at this time of the day?” The sergeant replies, “This is the new draft sir, they haven’t been kitted out yet.” “Right Sergeant, get ‘em back here on the double at 10.00 hours.” The sergeant then came out of the stores, lined us up and led us back to the barracks. Inside once more, se discussed among ourselves, “When do we eat? Where are we going to get our clothes dry? What kind of organisation is this? Are they all nuts? How can we escape? What can we do?” We soon found out.

The sergeant and corporals come in carrying wooden boxes, these they open up and hand each men 2 metal ‘eggs’ covered in thick grease. “Righto, clean them for now!” and with a last cautious remark, “If I hear any noise, there’ll be trouble.” The sergeant and corporals disappeared. Why should there be any noise and why should they disappear? Our spirits were more than dampened and all we got for our troubles were two live grenades each and not one piece of rag to clean them with.

It would be noticed that I was shedding my civilian cloak slowly, but surely, how else would I be thinking or *** at a time like that? I began to realise that this could be a dangerous place to be in. No one bothered to explain how to dismantle these things. I could see some of the lads tugging and pulling at the pins in these grenades. I decided to go out in the rain, but what did it matter if it was still pouring down with rain, as long as I could feel it? I began to wonder if that sergeant was a German spy sent to wipe out the ‘Green Howards’ barracks, or did he dislike us so much? The sergeant returned and asked me what I was doing, I told him my thoughts and he said, “The corporals are in there aren’t they?” I said, “No Sergeant, they left with you.” This he must have known but he galloped into the room and shouted to all and sundry, “Put the grenades down while you are all still in one piece.”

Happily, the grease was so thick that no one had been able to get the pins out completely. They managed halfway, but not altogether. After inspecting them all, the sergeant put them back in their boxes and commented bitterly, “If any one of you scruffy lot had done anything clever, I would have gotten a court martial and lost my pension. Him and his pension, all I had was a vision of a gang of civilians being scraped off the walls. All this, and we were to be taught how to kill German. I couldn’t see many of us managing it. So, once more, we lined up outside and marched off to the stores. Here, we finally had our plats, knives, forks and spoons, enamel pots, mess tins, jack knives, shoe brushes, hold alls, gaiters, boots (two pairs), steel helmet, socks, small pack, big pack, ammunition pouches, vests, pants and one pair of woollen gloves each.

Back in the barracks, we sorted ourselves out and were then instructed to put our regimental number on. All this had brought dinnertime along so we lined up with our plate, cup, knife, fork and spoon, and proceeded to the dining hall. There, we queued along the counter and the cook started to serve us our dinner. Plates at the ready, we moved along to receive stew, a spoonful of potatoes, a slice of bread and some tea. We found somewhere to sit and were soon devouring our first mal in the army. An officer came to our table and asked if there were any complaints. We had dozens, but who needs to complain when one is trying to fill an empty stomach. Complaints can come later. We ate our meal in no time at all and asked for more. But there were no second helpings. Did we think we were in the Grosvenor or something? “GET OUTSIDE AND ASH YOUR PLATES!!” etc. We were learning.

Once more, in the barracks, we were issued with little red discs. These had our names and numbers on. We were told to put them on string and wear them around our necks. “If you get killed, we will know who you are!” This was reassuring because we stood a good chance of being blown to bits or starving to death, and it would be good if someone knew who we were. Gradually, we were becoming a part of this great organisation. The afternoon was taken up being given advice on what the morrow held for us, and to me, it held a foreboding. We once again made our way to the dining hall for tea. Once that was over, we thought we had done, just like at home. Once more, we were learning. Some had to scrub the floors, some were held back to clean the dining hall. Some were told to report to the stores, in fact, everybody got a job to do, but we found out that the lucky ones were the ones in the dining hall. The cook gave them bread and dripping, and tea. This was where a man did his only volunteering in the British Army. Night falls and once more, it’s bedtime. Lights out and we turned in. I for one, lay and thought of home, wife and son. Sleep didn’t come too easily; in no time at all, the man with the bugle was at it again and once more, the bedclothes were unceremoniously ripped from our beds. “There must surely be an end to this madness, but where?” I thought. This created a train of thoughts of such things as, what must it be like to be an ex service man? What would it be like down a coalmine? What are they turning us into?

We went to see the tailor; he sized us up and down and shouted a number. A soldier handed us a uniform, which we were told to put on. There were no changing rooms, no privacy, we changed where we stood. Believe me, this was really something. An undersized chap was rigged out in khaki that would fit a six-foot man; a six foot man was dressed in khaki that would fit a five foot man and so on. The tailor, unperturbed, went to each man and made chalk marks on the uniforms. Then the men took their uniforms off and handed them back, supposedly for alterations. Such tailoring you have never seen before. Some were less fortunate, they were told theirs was a good fit and the unpractised eye could only see too well that they’d given the wrong size to everyone. The Germans would die laughing if they could see u. this was meant to demoralise us, surely.

We returned to barracks and proceeded to complete our dressing for now. We were wearing the King’s uniform. They told us the King must have been measured for them, we certainly weren’t. We soon found a way out of the difficulty, by exchanging with one another until we were more or less beginning to look human. Once we ha got everything in the right place, we were ordered outside on the double. We lined up and were marched off to a big hut. There, soldiers were handing out rifles and bayonets. Each man was told, as he got a rifle that this was his best friend and must not be let out of his sight. Wherever he goes, his rifle must go with him and he must memorise the serial number of his rifle. . He must always keep it clean,, inside and out and above all, make sure the safety catch is applied, and never point it at anyone. So much for best man’s friend.

Now, life changed again. From now on, we had to remember our numbers when it was called out. This created a little difficulty at first because we had two long numbers to remember, one for our rifle and one for us. This, we were assured, would come naturally to us after a while. But we doubted it. The next thing we knew, we were at the doctor’s...........sorry, M.O.’s again and we lined up and were requested to roll our shirtsleeves up. This we did, and the M.O. started to do Voodooism. He was sticking needles in everybody’s arms. Some were howling, some were dropping stiff on the floor; others were looking for a way out before it was their turn, but the stalwarts were blocking the door. Tales were circulating that the injections we had had would knock us out in a short time, so everybody was too scared to move out of the room. The sergeant and corporals soon altered that, and we were soon outside where we were paraded to the dentist who vented his spleen onus. By pointing and prodding in our mouths for bad teeth. We were not really fit for anything after this and were wondering how long do we have to be in before we can apply for sick leave, or is this how it feels when you are dying? Once again, the sergeant cures us and we set off at the gallop, back to the barracks. I was glad the sergeant didn’t know what I thought of him or would like to do to him. He was as bad as Hitler.

Well, we were finally kitted out and now the real torture began. I was selected to go to the dentist despite my insistence that my teeth were all right. A small kindly looking youngish man stared into my mouth at my teeth. He asked me how I liked the army, but I don’t think he expected a reply because he had inserted some kind of contraption into my mouth, which kept it wide open whilst he was pointing and jabbing. He also made other remarks about me telling him when it hurt etc. Then he said he would have to drill and put fillings in some of my teeth. I wanted to tell him not to bother but he went right on. My eyes must have told him that my teeth weren’t worth bothering with. I knew I would have to face the facts. This man was not going to be put off for anything, and then he brought the drill. As he drilled, I rose in the chair, gurgling and groaning, but he got the better of me by having a man lay across the chair and another one holding my shoulders from behind. . Smiling at me from time to time, he soon finished drilling and filling and then injected me with cocaine and proceeded to pull one of my teeth. This he did before the cocaine had time to take effect. The result being that I was sent back to the barracks. Here, I was told by the sergeant to change into P.T. kit and get out on a cross-country run. I explained to him that I had just had some teeth pulled out. “GET READY AND GET OUT!!” he shouted, so I did. Clad in a sweater, P.T. shorts, socks and army boots, I set off with the rest through the town and across country. Thirty miles (or so it seemed) we ran and as I stumbled back through the barrack gates, I was pulled to one side by an officer who asked me who had hit me. I didn’t know what he was talking about and tried to tell him, but my jaw wouldn’t work. It turned out that the cocaine I had been given had started to work whilst I was running and unknown to me, my jaw had dropped. Blood poured down from my mouth and all down my sweater. The officer thought I had been beaten to make me run, but that wasn’t so. He told me I should never have gone, which put the blame right back onto me. So much for dentists and cross-country runs.
Now we were getting an idea of what our lives were to be like and it wasn’t very comforting. Next, we were told that we would have to learn how to drill and march on the Barrack Square. “This should be good,” I thought, “it’s surprising to find that there are other uses for the feet, than walking. It’s also surprising to find oneself in doubt as to which is the left and right foot.” This was where we were to learn.
So, the raggedness begins to wear off; we were learning to march in step and were overcoming the intricacies of about turn. Also, we seemed to be pleasing the sergeant by the cracks appearing in the asphalt when we stamped our feet, but he’d want holes to appear before we’d have gotten it right. I must admit, it did hurt the feet, all this stamping. So, we got over our stint on the Barrack Square, went back to the Barracks and the usual cry: “OUTSIDE IN FIVE MINUTES IN P.T. KIT” It wasn’t another cross country run, this time it was to the gymnasium. We entered the gym to find chaps in white sweaters waiting for us. These are known in army terminology as P.T.I.s, Physical Training Instructors. Big fine men who told us straight away that they were going to make us strong like them. I had a bit of a paunch, but nothing much. One of the P.T.I.s came to me and said, “Where are you from Laddie, what work did you do?” I said, “I’m from Sheffield and was a furnace man.” “Drink much beer?” he asked. “Oh, one or two pints, you know,” I replied. “Right, we’ll knock that belly off you for a start,” he informed me.

The things we had to try to do was unbelievable, the P.T.I. took a running jump, landed hands first onto a vaulting horse and said, “Right, line up and do that!” We lined up and in turn, ran to the vaulting horse and jumped. The younger lads managed to do it quite well, but me, I was at the stage where I couldn’t jump on a bus. I had to try, but my effort should have been filmed. The jump I did had never been done before and my landing neither. I went over the horse and finished upside down on the floor, wedged in some fashion against the vaulting horse on the back of my neck.
So, this was army life, is this the beginning of the end?