On 21 March 1946 – one month late because of my rejected deferment application – I arrived at Norwich (Thorpe) station to find that a large number of us had been on the train from Liverpool Street. We were rapidly assembled, told to climb into the back of an army lorry, and driven up to Mousehold Heath Barracks. A sergeant told the whole group of us on the parade square that we would not be allowed outside the barracks for at least three weeks in any circumstances, and that we’d better rapidly learn some discipline, as it was their profound misfortune, after having served their country through the war, to be given the job of turning a shower like us into something that gullible civilians might mistake for being a soldier. Just looking at us – God help the British Empire! There were 32 of us. Our corporal, Corporal Ramage, slept in a screened off portion of our hut. Sergeant Bunce had better quarters somewhere else. 31 of us were Eastenders, all from Bethnal Green, Hackney or Mile End; I was number 32, from digs in posh Kingsbury Green, London NW.
My being thrown in at the deep end with 31 disorientated Eastenders was salutary. Either I would be bullied unmercifully by them, or they could turn to me as one of their own number whom they could trust. I, literally at once, found that I had to grasp the corporal’s instructions and then teach the others in my hut how to make their beds, and unmake them in the morning and stack the ‘biscuits’ (a form of three-portioned mattress), and fold the blankets in a manner that would pass inspection. I was helping them write letters home to their mums – simple ones on the lines of “Dear Mum, Sell the pig and buy me out” to which the conventional reply would come “Sorry, son. Pig dead; soldier on”. Or more complex ones about the allowance the soldier would be making to his mum out of his pay. I think pay then was three shillings a day, though it rose very shortly after this to four shillings a day. Allowing 12/6 a week to his mum and trying to save anything for a railway fare, if he (eventually) had a weekend leave pass, would be hopeless. I had to convince him that he must tell his mum that all he could afford was 7/6, (which would be paid weekly by the army authorities to his mum). I had no one dependent on me and had the full 21/– a week (soon, 28/–) for myself. Compared to most of them, I was rich. But I gained their trust and, frankly, rather enjoyed Mousehold Heath – it was better than unenthusiastically learning Chinese at SOAS.
Sergeant Bunce taught us the parts of a rifle and took us to the firing range. More ambitiously, he taught us the parts of a sten gun and tested us on our knowledge. He was a Norwich butcher impatiently waiting for his demob; but he took a pride in trying to turn us into soldiers. The only thing he finally baulked at was grenade training; the risk was too great. He took 32 grenades out of the armoury, marched us to an area where there was a high bank of earth, told us to lie down behind it and stay down. Then, over a period of time, he took each grenade, pulled out its pin, and then threw it as far away from us and himself as he could. Then, he signed in each of our paybooks that we had thrown 2 live hand grenades. As he said, after fighting in the war, he didn’t want to die because one of us pulled the pin, panicked and dropped the bloody thing. I have my paybook still and the entry is in it, initialled ‘EHBSgt’
Some time into our six weeks’ training, after we had begun to be allowed out of the barracks at weekends, three of the Bethnal Green lads decided that they had had enough and were going to do a bunk on Saturday. They told me about it – which demonstrated how much the whole squad had come to trust me. I told them their long-term chances were absolutely nil; the police would pick them up as soon as they got home. But they still wanted to go. So I advised them, not in any circumstances to book a ticket to Liverpool Street; they would simply walk into the arms of the MPs (Military Police), and be arrested at once. I told them instead, to book to Kings Cross, catch a train from Norwich to Cambridge, change there on to a local to Kings Cross. This would stop at Finsbury Park; there would be no MPs at Finsbury Park. They could just go out of the station and right outside they’d find a 236 bus which would take them to Mare Street, Hackney for 4d. If they couldn’t find their way home from there, they were dim-wits. They assured me that they had grasped it.
They went to Norwich station and booked to Liverpool Street. Three or four hours later, Sergeant Bunce came to tell us that we wouldn’t be seeing them again. The MPs had picked them up at the ticket barrier and they were now on their way to a long spell in Colchester; the same would be the fate of anyone else who went AWOL (Absent Without Obtaining Leave). We’d been in long enough to know what Colchester signified.