By Basil Kybird (Pte 19124085)
War required the person at first to register with the Ministry of Labour. It had been used for the first time from 1916 to 1919. Most men were called up for military service except those in reserved occupations. In 1944 – 1945 because of the coal shortages thousands of wartime conscripts were drafted into coal mines as Bevin Boys. National Service ended with the victory in 1945 but was re-imposed in 1947 to enlarge the Armed Forces, first for eighteen months and then two years. It ceased in 1960. On January 27th 1945 I was required to register as I was now 16, by cycling from Methwold to the Ministry of Labour Office at Stoke Ferry. The next stage in the process was at 9 a.m. Monday, 25th November, 1946, we had by then moved to Norwich, presenting myself for a medical examination at Martineau Hall, Colegate, Norwich when I was required to strip off and after various tests pronounced Grade 1.
16th January, 1947 was the big day. I was ordered to attend Britannia Barracks, Norwich to submit myself to the wills of experienced soldiers desirous of making me a soldier also. I was given a Field Conduct Sheet bearing my Army Number, 19124085 and which was clean of any misbehaviour. I was also presented with my Army Book 64 Part 1 which was a Soldier’s Service and Pay Book. It recorded various training such as rifle and grenade throwing and a six mile route March. Another page was a form of will.
With this was another record book, A B 64 Part 2. This was a record of skills at arms and my rifle number. Interesting that just insie the front cover it read ” Your weapons are given you to kill the enemy”. It also recorded that on 20th February I was assessed as suitable to be a clerk with the Royal Army Ordinance Corps.
January, 1947, one of the coldest winters for many years, snow and ice everywhere, shortages of food and coal. On 16th I had been instructed to report to Britannia Barracks, Norwich. Fortunately I was living with my parents at 172, Thorpe Road, so it was no hardship for me to find my way walking through the snow. It didn’t worry me too much, I was proud to be joining the army and to escape the restraints of Barclays Bank and home life. First I reported to the guard room. We formed Draft 102 at No. 9 Training Centre and were given an Army number which we had to learn very quickly under threat of terrible consequences. We took with us just essentials such as shaving and washing kit.
The Sergeant Major was ‘Winky’ Fitt, a man to be dreaded. In later years when he was security officer for a large firm in the City and I was in the C.I.D. of Norwich City Police I found him to be a very nice person. The Adjutant was a Captain Sewell, a quieter person. He also I met in later years, I think about 1985, when he commissioned me to make an engraving for him of his medals. This I did. He was an unwell man and died very soon after.
We raw recruits were allocated to billets, I to one of the ‘spider’ huts which held about twelve of us. Next we were issued with our uniforms and equipment. The Store man, a Sergeant had an uncanny knack of allocating the right sizes although there was the occasional error which caused some amusement! The number of items with which we were issued was incredible; beret, General Issue badge, overcoat, battledress blouse, trousers with button flies (of course), braces, boots, laces, shirts, tie, socks; the outer clothing was all of an itchy, scratchy fabric. Some of these items were in duplicate, then there was a kit bag which eventually had our army number stenciled on it; large and small packs, ammunition pouches, webbing, belt with brass fittings, cape, web anklets, two aluminium mess tins, pint china mug, cutlery, and probably plates were included and I suppose a steel helmet. I had a brass button stick but I think I bought that, as I did tins of boot polish and Dura-Glit. Our uniforms had to have razor sharp creases and we soon learnt to smear soap along the backs of the creases in our trousers and place them between sheets of cardboard under our mattresses. One thing we had to learn was to wear our berets so the badge was positioned over the left eye.
At some stage we were issued with identification documents such as the A.B.64 Parts I and II, also dog tags with our name and number impressed on them. We were allocated to platoons I believe named after Royal Norfolk soldiers who had won the Victoria Cross. The beds were metal framed on which we each placed three straw filled paliasses or ‘biscuits’ as they were termed, to form mattresses. Lights out was at 11p.m. whereby the duty sergeant came round to each billet and kindly switched our lights off. It seemed he was round again in no time at all, banging and shouting at 6 a.m. as it was reveille. This was followed by twelve bleary eyed ‘squaddies’ rushing to wash, shave, dress and get ready for breakfast. After wards was the task of trying to wash greasy plates, cutlery and pint sized mug in lukewarm water in outside cauldrons. – Not very hygienic but this was the least of our problems!
In the first day or two we were all given a haircut, I can’t remember if we paid for it, probably it was only a shilling anyway. We were also instructed in the proper way to lay out our paliasses and kit on our beds. If it wasn’t to the Sergeants satisfaction it was tipped onto the floor and we had to start again.
We were issued with two pairs of boots, complete with hob nails. We were required to acquire a very high gloss on them. This meant many hours of ‘boning’ to smooth out the grain. To do this first we applied black polish and the used the back of a spoon or similar to gradually wear away the wrinkles. We then used plenty of ‘spit and polish’ and a damp duster to bring up a high polish on toes and heels. One pair of boots was reserved for parades. Another ‘pass-time’ was to blanco our large and small packs, ammunition pouches, belt and webbing. Blanco was a sort of paste stuff which was applied wet then allowed to dry. It came in a variety of shades of khaki depending where we were serving, sometimes white. In the Far East the colour was a dark green, whereas in the Middle East it was a sandy colour.
Britannia Barracks was one of the Army Training Establishments in the country. On enlistment we were sent to one of these, joining the General Service Corps for initial training. During this time we were assessed as to in which Regiment or Corps we would serve our King and Country best. Because I could write and had been a bank clerk the Royal Army Ordinance Corps was
graced with my presence. Britannia Barracks was the H.Q. of the Royal Norfolk Regiment and was staffed by soldiers of that Regiment who trained us innocents. For many of my colleagues the Army was an unpleasant experience but I enjoyed it, it made me a man out of a toffee nosed little bank clerk, escaping a strict father. Upon my return to ‘civvy’ street and Barclays Bank I decided there was something else to life other than figures and consequently joined Norwich City Police. Note Norwich City – my father was still serving in Norfolk Constabulary and I had no wish to be in his grasp!
When my National Service began was 1947, one of the coldest in the twentieth century, lasting from January through to March. The country had not recovered from the effects of the war, coal, coke, food all in short supply. In the centre of our hut was a tortoise shell stove for heating the whole of the hut. We were allowed one bucket of fuel to last twenty four hours, about enough to fill the stove once! I always liked a drink of water handy during the night. I therefore innocently put my pint mug under my bed with water in it. During the night I went for a drink and nothing came out of my mug, it was frozen solid. I cannot remember how many blankets we were issued with but I found my greatcoat most useful on top. Fortunately we weren’t in the billet much until evening and then there was the NAAFI for a cup of tea and something to eat if we needed it.
We took turns in pairs to do a nightly fire watch patrol. That was a joy! I seemed to click for 4a.m. to 6a.m. With a mate Geoff Earle we were instructed to wear gym shoes so in the course of our patrolling we didn’t wake anyone up. Can you imagine walking round the whole complex for two hours in the snow wearing plimsolls! The worst of this shift was the extraneous duty of lighting fires OUTSIDE under cauldrons of water to provide hot water for our mates to shave with and more water for washing up our greasy breakfast things! The hardest part of this exercise was finding dry materials to light the fires with! At some stage during my residence at Britannia Barracks I had a spell of one or two weeks in the garrison hospital with bronchitis, probably as a result!
We must have been issued with singlets and shorts for P.T. and Self Defence lessons. I remember cross country runs in the snow also route marches of about six miles carrying a lot of equipment but I can’t remember what. Another frolic in the snow was rifle practice. We had to lie down and fire at targets with 303 Lee-Enfield rifles. Our hands would be frozen to the rifles. Then of course there was bayonet practice. For this we had to charge at suspended sacks of straw, bayonets fixed to our rifles and thrust at the ‘enemy’ with bloodthirsty shouts.
At least with drill and marching in threes our feet kept warm even if we produced blisters and some had chilblains. It was surprising how many of us had two left feet!
Everything was carried out to the count of threes and we soon learned to respond to such commands as “‘ef, ‘eyet, ‘ef, ‘eyet”, “‘ern t’ ‘eft in frees”, “By th’ ‘eft ‘ick march”, and so on. However after a bit of ‘gentle’ coaching from the Drill Sergeant or Sergeant Major, we ‘orrible lot’ learnt to move as one disciplined body. Rifle drill was another piece of organi sed chaos, all to the count of three of course, “ ‘loop arms, two three”, “stan’ at hease, wait forit, wait forit, two three”. It was like learning Mandarin or something equally obscure.
However, in six weeks of basic training we were changed from boys to half disciplined men in readiness to serve our King and Country. I must mention some of my mates. There was Puggy (Percy) whose father worked on my uncle Percy’s farm. Poor Puggy couldn’t read or write. I suppose it was because of family connections that we palled up and I tried to help him along. Unfortunately his disabilities were discovered and after a couple of weeks he was discharged. Roderick ‘Beefy’ Boorman was a vicar’s son, very sports minded and good at cross country runs. I believe at the time his father was vicar at Garveston. Then there was Tich’, all five feet nothing, from Norwich.
I have just remembered another ‘comrade in arms’, Ray De’ath, who came from the wilds of the countryside south of Norwich. He, Beefy and myself had our photos taken at Jeromes, London Street. I still have it among my treasures.
As well as the physical exertions we had periods in the classroom. One was on Current Affairs. I can’t remember what else. Near to the end of our six weeks training, on 20th February, we were assessed as to how we were best suited to serve our King and Country. I believe the Assessment Officer felt that if we could write we were suitable as clerks. It appears the Royal Army Ordinance Corps was short of two clerks so Tich and I were allocated to fill the gap.
Joe Mason adds; I have had a email from my sister Christine with an interesting footnote to Basil’s article: I have just been reading on your blog the account from Britannia Barracks. One of the soldiers mentioned is Roderick (Beefy) Boorman. I wonder if you realized that he married Cousin Gwen Osbourne. Tiggie and I were bridesmaids at their wedding. Christine
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