They Can’t Give You a Baby

A Big Lake

‘THEY CAN DO ANYTHING TO YOU IN THE ARMY BAR GIVE YOU A baby,’ the old London-Irish porter who’d had varicocele and served in four campaigns told me as I got aboard the train in July 1940. ‘But keep your trap shut and your bowels open you can’t come to no harm.’

So I reported as ordered to the Infantry Training Camp at Blandford, Essex, and was there enlisted as No. 6027033 Private Ross J.

Further advice was offered me on arrival by an older recruit who said: ‘Take my tip, mate, when they put you down for the range don’t go on the piss the night before and don’t go with no woman neither ’cause you can’t shoot proper with a shaking hand, but this advice was wasted because the only drink available in the camp was Naafi beer which certainly resembled piss but was not drunk-making enough to send one on it; no women were allowed in; and we for the first fortnight weren’t allowed out.

Besides, going on the range was out of the question as none of us had so far been issued with rifles: since Dunkirk, in short supply.

The survivors from Dunkirk had been billeted for a short time in the camp on their return, and the latrine walls were decorated with drawings of a death’s head above a grave-mound, underlined with the caption: `HOW D’YOU LIKE THIS YOU ROOKIE BASTARDS? (SIGNED) THE BOYS WHO BEEN THROUGH IT:

There was also a rhyme signed by Spokeshave the Shithouse Poet, a universal figure who seems to have served in every regiment in the British army:

When apples are ripe

And ready far plucking

Girls of sixteen are ready for…



The camp looked from the air like a big lake, they told us, which hadn’t prevented Jerry from dropping a load on it in the not so distant past, as craters in the surrounding chalk abundantly testified. Every time a plane roared overhead, the blokes rushed joyfully to the barrack hut windows, shouting ‘Watch out boys, here comes Hitler!’; they made whistling noises like sticks of bombs falling, followed by concerted shouts of ‘BOOM to represent the explosion. But that summer Hitler seemed to have got sick of coming.

‘That’s on account of this new camouflage we got,’ explained our platoon sergeant, who looked like the soldierly figure depicted on the labels of Camp Coffee bottles and claimed that we resembled not a big lake but a big bloody shower.

So while we new recruits drilled in shirt-sleeve order on the enormous sun-baked barrack square, other more seasoned soldiers sprayed the surface of sheds and buildings round about with camouflage paint that speckled our bare arms and khaki shirts with almost indelible brown and green spots as it was blown towards us on the wind.

We drilled at first with broomsticks owing to the dearth of rifles, then an actual rifle appeared and was handed round the square, though our platoon hadn’t much time to learn its mechanism before a runner came to attention in front of our sergeant saying; ‘Please sar’nt our sar’nt in No. 8 says could we have the rifle for a dekko over there ’cause none of our blokes so much as seen one yet’

We had none of us seen a steel helmet at close quarters either, they hadn’t been issued to us although a consignment in the stores awaited a War Office or Command order authorising distribution.

Then one afternoon, when parades were over and the blokes in our barrack hut were rattling their mess tins all ready for tea, Hitler came at last.

His coming was not heralded, as it should have been, by sirens (it turned out after someone had forgotten to let these off), and a series of dull detonations from the Artillery Camp across the valley caused little stir, as things were always going off over there. But this time the hum of an engine could be heard, the blokes began their whistling and booming then stopped abruptly, dropping their mess tins, as real whistles and trumps duplicated outside the sounds they’d made.

Through the window, from the hillside on which the Artillery Camp was built, a tall brown flower of earth could be seen blossoming while we watched: it expanded outwards like a firework in all directions and afterwards many swore they had seen swastikas on the wings of the lone raider that was now heading straight towards us. There were no NCOs present, still less an officer; we dashed to the side doorway, got jammed in the entrance, then threw ourselves flat beneath a whitewashed wall outside as Jerry zoomed over low, chips of whitewash flew; and we heard for the first time in earnest the DUH-DUH-DUH of the machine gun that had been so often mimicked in jest.

The plane dived, again the DUH-DUH-DUH, then it banked and headed towards the Gunner camp while we made crouching for the trenches: there was no one to lead the way there but we knew that already since we’d helped, ourselves, to dig them in the chalk, pissing on our palms to harden them as it was said that navvies did.

More bombs whistled down, one sounding like a direct hit; and the Nazi plane returned, circling silver and so high above our heads it could hardly be seen; voices from adjoining trenches shouted: ‘Where the bleeding bloody officers?’ and ‘Why’nt we got tin hats?’ while somebody shrilled hysterically: ‘Shut your mouth or he’ll hear us, he’ll hear us I tell you shut your bleeding mouth.’

The Jerry pilot didn’t hear them and soon ceased to hear anything at all, for he flew away to be caught in the Bournemouth barrage and shot down in flames so we were later told. Directly he’d gone, everyone clambered out of the trenches and began to utter guffaws of relief and bravado, then suddenly a young subaltern appeared panting, to mutters of ’Bout time too’ and ‘Joy your tea, mate?’, and red in the face ordered us back in until the All Clear was blown, which happened after we’d stood tealess for another thirty minutes in the trenches.

There were no casualties in the Artillery Camp, indeed we almost wished Jerry had chosen us instead, for the direct hit had demolished the Gunners’ empty gym whereas ours remained intact and there were many who hated PT, above all the Horse.

But the upshot of this baptism by fire was that we were issued with tin hats and small arms shortly followed. First to be given a rifle was our barrack-room NCO, a lance-corporal who’d been an insurance clerk in civvy street and now felt the chance had come to show his mettle as a leader of men.

To demonstrate the efficacy of our new steel helmets and the protection they afforded, he clapped on his own tin hat then handing his rifle to a huge recruit, told this man to strike him with the butt.

The recruit, a gentle timid soul despite his size, demurred. ‘That’s an order,’ the lance-jack rapped out, ‘You either hit me or go on a 252,’ there was a pause while the nature of a 252, the minor offence report, was explained to the huge recruit who could expect seven days to barracks if he went on one for disobeying an order; then down came the rifle butt, blood spurted from under the tin hat, brim and the corporal sank slowly down, the sound of his fall swiftly echoed by a heavier thump as the huge recruit followed suit, having fainted at the sight of blood.

It appeared a loose screw inside the corporal’s helmet had been driven into his scalp by the blow; we agreed that a screw had also been loose inside the corporal, head, and he was carted off to hospital, where the huge contrite recruit visited him every day: being unable, himself, ever to handle a rifle with confidence thereafter.

Meanwhile the barrack-room radio played records of Judy Garland singing ‘Over The Rainbow’ or a tune called ‘I Was Watching a Man Paint A Fence’; and the camp must have ceased to look from above like a big lake, for Jerry took time off from the Battle of Britain to bomb us day and night.

Planes came over in droves, it was no longer necessary for the blokes to whistle and boom, all leave was cancelled, and when not a lot of the ITC was left we were abruptly evacuated, destination unknown to all other ranks.

On arrival, after a roundabout train journey so long that we, believed ourselves bound for Scotland, we were assembled on an enormous desert of asphalt and addressed in pitch darkness by the Commanding Officer of another ITC in Suffolk.

‘Now you men have been through a bad time,’ he told us, ‘blitzed and strafed right and left by the Hun, and you’ve stood up to it well But you’ll be glad to hear that Jerry hasn’t smelt us out so far ha ha, so you can get on with your training in peace,’ and at this prospect search-lights suddenly probed the sky, a German engine nosed chugging somewhere overhead, and the sirens started to wail.

© the Estate of Julian Maclaren-Ross

Using Format