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Uneventful apprenticeship

With no sense of shame, I confess that my military career from 1943 until 1951, when my short-service commission ended and I returned to civilian life, was far from illustrious. In contrast, for a short period in Egypt at the beginning of the 'cold war', it was highly eventful, which is, however, a chapter for the telling at another time. Having been inveigled into signing my attestation papers to serve seven years with the colours and five with the reserve – and what child of fourteen would have the wit to understand significance of signing along that dotted line? – I was posted to the Army Technical School, Arborfield, as it was then known, along with a contingent of fellow Dukies; there, in my case, to serve an apprenticeship as an electrical tradesman. At that time, my sole qualification was an Army Special Certificate of Education with a distinction in mathematics. The Royal Army Education Corps had four levels of educational achievement: in ascending order, the Third, Second, First and Special certificates. These have no meaning today, but an 'Army Special' had meaning at that time. The distinction in mathematics is, presumably, what influenced some bureaucratic selection officer to stream me for a career as an electrician.
I had been taught to play the B flat clarinet at the Duke of York's and had developed a reasonable proficiency in the instrument and read music with ease. Indeed, I was well on the way to a musical career with hopes of going to the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall. Getting a bandboy of fourteen with five years musical training and experience was every bandmaster's dream, so the disappointment of the bandmaster of my father's regiment was palpable when next we met at the regimental depot. The fact was I had been 'streamed' by the Commanding Officer of the Regiment for a musical life in the band of the 58th Foot. The bandmaster was well aware of the CO's intentions. It was therefore not surprising when he bitterly muttered the word 'traitor' and turned his back on me.

1943 Arborfield apprentice with his brothers all underage  (note the General Service Corps cap badge)

It meant as little to me at the time as taking the King's shilling had been; one of those minor incidents all the same that lodge and remain in the memory. It has been there ever since.  

Getting through the Arborfield apprenticeship was uneventful, though it had its moments. We spent the first six months cutting, filing, drilling and polishing 'Jack's lump'. This was a 3" x 3" x 2" chunk of mild steel coated with a greasy, brittle shell from the rolling mill. This shell or slag had to be removed with a cold chisel and hammer. Such back breaking work could only result in cut, bruised and battered hands from the novice's ham-fisted hammer blows and therefore ruinous to he who would a classical musician be. Then one surface was filed until flat and without a slivver of light showing when checked with a straight edge. Cleaning, cutting and filing a square block of steel was no joke. One spent weeks at the job before it was ready for drilling, using a ratchet hand drill (no power drill allowed), filing a square hole and fitting a block of brass into the steel block.

The workshop instructors were civilians who, because of their work as instructors, were in  reserved occupations. They varied from barely disguised pedophiles (although one only realized this in retrospect from their touching and scandalous talk at their desks with boys gathered around them) to decent men with a genuine desire to impart their knowledge to us.  

Some things one never forgets. Those of us destined to become electricians were tricked into sticking two fingers into a bayonet socket of an electrical device. One remembered the shock of 230 volts coursing through one's fingers for the rest of one's days. Our instructor had us do this to give us a healthy and unforgettable respect for danger of electricity. When working on any electrical equipment, we were warned never to wear rings, watches, keys and key chains on our persons, neither next to the skin nor in a pocket. It was a tough and salutary lesson that has remained with me throughout my working life.

We Dukies took the discipline of the military instructors in our stride, for we had lived as strict a military life as anyone could expect in peace or war. That is, when one has suffered the corporal punishment of being gripped between the sergeant-major's legs, head under crotch, shirt tail pulled out and khaki trousers stretched tight to have six strokes of the cane delivered those extra drills, jankers and confinement to barracks of boy service are indeed small potatoes. Our military instructors – broken, worn-out or nearing retirement warriors from all units of the British Army – were straight and upright men with a strong sense of morality with whom one would find it hard to fault. They were tough, fair-minded and even-handed in the way they treated us. They stood no nonsense but, unlike the ignorant and boorish NCOs portrayed in contemporary films of military life, they had no need to bully us.

Harassment or hazing, such as one reads going on in adult institutions, was not part of our experience. At the slightest hint of bullying or maltreatment of weaker boys, we Dukies ganged up on the perpetrators, for bullies rarely act alone, and soon put a stop to it. If the Dukies experience taught us anything it gave us a sense of comradeship that stood us in good stead when we went to Arborfield. We also had the experience to teach the fellows coming in from civvy street how to 'bone their boots' (done with the handle of a toothbrush), to get the grease out and black polish in to make boots shine like patent leather.

Thanks to those of us who played musical instruments, the Arborfield apprentice school had a large band. During my time, the core of the band was the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards. We were probably eighty to a hundred strong depending on the number of Dukie musicians – and the occasional lad who had played in a colliery or brass band - serving apprenticeships at any one time. Bandmaster Snell of the 4th/7th Dragoons was a professional musician of incomparable achievement who impressed even we Dukie musicians. You don't have to have a doctorate in musicology to recognize a musical director of brilliance. Our bandmaster wrote his musical arrangements by hand. They were works of art, balanced and beautifully scored without error. I suppose it takes one with an ear for music to detect the art of a fine musical direction. He is credited with composing the march past of the REME. He certainly had a remarkable knowledge of music. Foul notes on parade or during a concert he would register with uncanny accuracy and remember to 'play back' to us later. At the next band meeting, he would trot out his observations like a recording. "Fitzgerald, second horn in the coda of Colonel Bogey, played a b flat instead of a b natural, not once but twice and, Fitch, there is no such note as C flat, so where did that so foul a note come from? Clarke, you must learn to tune your clarinet. You were semi-tone out from beginning to end. Horrible! Watson, are you using a log for a reed in that oboe? You mangle every passage." So he would go on and, by his sharp-as-a-razor commentary on our instruments and phrasing, so produced a good sound from us. We had to have been the best band within a hundred miles because we traveled far and wide at the weekends and, on special occasions, during a weekday. What was even better, we occasionally got paid for the music we played at festivals, functions and fetes.

Early in 1944, we were moved out of Southern Command while preparation for the invasion of Normandy was underway. We were sent to various stations in the North of England, a contingent in which I numbered being posted to the Radio-Telecommunication School at Bury in Lancashire.

My Mother's family had settled in Preston. Her parents were fierce Roman Catholics, her father an Irishman from Dublin, her mother a Fraser from the Scottish Highlands. No Protestant was ever permitted to cross the threshold of the Thompson household. Such was the religious divide of the country at the time that a mixed marriage meant not a union of black and white, but husband and wife of opposing religious persuasion.
Pay Day at Arborfield (c1960)
When my Mother went to India at age 22 to marry my Father, a lukewarm Protestant, it was the last she ever saw of her family, for they immediately disowned her, although she kept in touch with her younger sister Carrie. The Thompsons, like ourselves, were a military family. Their county regiment was the East Lancashire Regiment with its depot in Preston. A couple of Thompson brothers perished on the Western Front. Other brothers of their large brood survived. Not surprisingly, the family maintained close ties with the regimental depot as did we with ours.

Grandmother Thompson was well known around the depot long before the outbreak of WWI. As a younger woman, and mother of a growing brood of children, she made her daily rounds of the regimental depot with a galvanized canister wrapped in felt to keep the contents hot, the contraption being strapped to her back in a harness of her own making. It must have been a heavy load when she began her journey each day. The canister contained a concoction of hot peppermint called stingo, which she prepared every morning to her own recipe. This pick-me-up was popular with the troops for overcoming heavy hangovers, sold for a penny a half-gill and drunk on the spot. She used the same half-gill glass on her rounds, and wiped it out with a cloth carried in her waist belt. No one cared about the transmission of diseases from drinking from the same cup in those days. It was enough that 'Stingo Thompson' wiped the cup clean for the next customer as the priest might wipe the chalice between sips at holy communion. When she died, the regimental journal carried a lengthy laudatory obituary on her and the Thompson family's connection with the regiment. This was soon after World War II. She was still very much alive when I visited Preston one weekend in 1944.

My Mother had given me our Aunt Carrie's address, so I wrote to ask if I might visit. She replied that I'd be very welcome – and I was. Aunt Carrie had identical twins, daughters, as handsome and vivacious a pair of Lancashire lassies you could hope to meet anywhere. We were about the same age, 15 or 16 in 1944, and took to one another like the long-lost cousins we were; they to me because I was a Protestant cousin from beyond the Pale and therefore an oddity in the strong Irish-Scots-Catholic community of Preston; and me to them because they were not only strikingly attractive cousins, but a rarity in my celibate all-male existence. I was, that weekend, besotted with both of them. Besides, I was in an 'old-fashioned' WWI uniform with a peaked cap and WWII-issue battledress belt. It was an odd combination that delighted my cousins immensely.

My cousins, Rachael and Theresa, took charge of my visit, escorting me, one on either side, across town to visit to our common grandmother's house. Her husband having departed this mortal coil long ago, she was living with one of her sons and his family. I was overwhelmed by the huge crowd of people who had turned up for the occasion: aunts, uncles, cousins, second and third cousins, for word of my visit had spread like wildfire in the tree tops. Details of the visit are dim now, but the place was as crowded as the Vatican Square for the Christmas blessing. My cousins, doing escort duty, introduced me to the bewildering array of people who were welcoming and curious and charming. The twins duly introduced me to our Grandmama, a trim and upstanding woman in her early nineties with sharp features, dark brown eyes and with a head of thick, totally white hair that was gathered and held at the back of the neck and cascaded down her back. My own Mother's hair was equally thick and abundant except that hers was jet black. Grandmama Thompson accepted the introduction in silence and, having acknowledged my presence with a curt inclination of the head, turned her back on me and walked away. I never saw her again. I stayed at my Aunt Carrie's house that night and returned to Bury the next day. That was the last I ever saw of my mother's family; a brief and sweet and bitter experience.

Of Bury and its surrounding landscape I have a lasting impression of a damp and rain-soaked countryside. There must have been fine sunny days, but they were few in number and what sun shone in the winter of 1943-44 did little to make an impression. Nevertheless, the highlight of my time in the Bury station was meeting a pretty Irish girl named Colleen. She was about my own age, perhaps a year younger. Our date such as it was occurred a few days after our first meeting. We stood alone in a country lane looking cautiously first in one direction then the other. I put my arm about her and clasped a buttony bosom in the cup of my hand. It was an exhilerating experience; nor did she object, but continued looking about her, unconcerned. Neither of us spoke. I was in uniform and she was dressed for winter weather in a smart princess-line, button-down-the-front flared coat. Innocent enough though our encounter might have been it was my first sexual experience. Then it was gone. I wrote to her many times without success over the next few months.

Before we knew it, we returned to Arborfield to join our fellows soon after the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, perhaps in the late summer or early Autumn. Others with better memories might have a more accurate date.

Back in Arborfield, our apprentice training continued while the war went on. Then the war ended. Field Marshal Lord Montgomery visited Arborfield to inspect us – well, those in the ranks, not the band, which was an add-on feature the great man took for granted like those cartons of cigarettes he kept in the back of his jeep when visiting the troops and throwing them out - even though he was himself a non-smoker and considered smoking a filthy habit.

  Who’s who? Arborfield apprentices 1945
A/T J. Saxton (with foot over board), at his shoulder A/T Sands; extreme right, Sgt. Instructor Plume in KOSB Glengarry
1946 Passing out parade under The Inspecting Officer, Field Marshal Lord Montgomery.
Note 100-strong band of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards
Soon after, with our kitbags packed and everything else we possessed either stowed away or given away – boot-boning toothbrush handles, cardboard for pressing trousers, and addresses to a friend one was about to leave behind – we were sent on our way. The majority of the 43B intake moved next door to the REME depot. Some went to the Ordnance Corps. The cream of the crop (which I know for a fact because I was part of it) went to the Royal Engineers. Our transfer to the Sappers is something of a mystery, for the Royal Engineers had their own long-established apprentice training program, so why they should get those of us transferred from Arborfield has to be an unexplained mystery.

Army Apprentice Group
January 2006


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