After the initial weeks of introduction to army life by hard discipline, barrack square drill, less than tasty food and aptitude testing, I was posted to the artillery survey training school at Larkhill at the far western edge of the military camps on Salisbury Plain. Our group were presumably selected by aptitudes for mathematics and geography, chosen to undertake six months of training as artillery surveyors leading into one of the army’s then more esoteric branches. We were to locate enemy guns, not to fire any of our own directly.
Billeted in wooden huts with cast iron stoves to counter the winter cold of the Plain, our diet was of prunes for breakfast and slabs of meat for supper. When the orderly officer came around and asked if the meals were satisfactory, he did not expect to be given a true opinion and none was offered.
More enjoyable were trips in trucks around the countryside for reasons which I cannot remember, when benevolent sergeants took us to enjoy cream donuts at country pubs. At the weekend we could go into Salisbury to enjoy the open Saturday market – unfamiliar to a Scot – or walk over the flood plain of the Avon and look back to the Cathedral spire which almost split the sky.
It was a warm and dry summer on the Plain, and I recall walking from the camp one quiet evening down a flint and chalk track to Stonehenge, then completely open to passers-by and under no protection from casual visitors.
There were other enjoyments at Larkhill. One avuncular sergeant captained and was goalkeeper to the unit hockey team. The team primarily comprised national servicemen but included one officer in the only marginal social mixing of non-commissioned and commissioned ranks I experienced in the year and a half of my service. Pitches at the various camps at which we played on the Plain were superb – engineered by the army from chalk, planed as flat, firm and as green as billiard tables. One particular memory is of our goalkeeping sergeant leaping in the air, waving his hockey stick in delight as his transient team of young soldiers scored the equalising goal against a unit apparently only recently champions of the Middle East army command. This was great status for our captain to earn amongst other hockey playing units on the Plain.
A periodic and unwanted responsibility was guard duty, carrying not arms or ammunition but pick shaft handles, wandering in the dark around the buildings of the survey school and on the heathland surrounding the camp. Two hours perambulating and then four hours off, resting as best could be achieved on the unforgiving wire base of the beds. Tired feet remained in heavy boots until the next of the two, two hour shifts which all served in the night.
Returning from a day trip to London with a T shirt which at the time was an unfamiliar sight in Britain, was the cause of my only experience of the traditional army punishment of cookhouse duty. A lance-bombardier seeking a victim for the cookhouse to peel potatoes, ignorant of the arrival from America of Tee shirts to become a ubiquitous mode of British dress, spotted me playing basketball outdoors one Saturday afternoon. Assuming that I was wearing an undervest in public, I was sent as punishment to peel potatoes for the rest of the afternoon.
On working weekdays we trained in the huts in artillery survey techniques of flash spotting and sound ranging, employing our school education in geometry and trigonometry, but we were also introduced to Lee Enfield .303 rifles which had been the British infantry’s staple since the Boer War and through two World Wars. Expeditions onto the Plain reminded us that soldiers had wider purposes than the application of mathematics; we took our issued .303 rifles for experience on the ranges, firing Sten and Bren guns with trepidation. I recall an overnight exercise on the Plain, which added to the passing contact we had with more common military practice. Never again in my service did I fire a shot in either anger or by way of training.
Qualifying in October as artillery surveyors, my group’s posting was initially to Woolwich Barracks in London and then home for pre-embarkation leave for sailing to Hong Kong. Our expected days of leave at home were unhappily curtailed after 5 days when telegrams recalled us to Woolwich; the Devonshire, our troopship for Hong Kong, had been lodged for repairs in a Merseyside dock and its sailing was being further delayed. Returned from Woolwich back to Larkhill, we lodged there for six weeks until given an unexpected fortnight’s leave for Christmas and New Year. Returning after that for a week at Woolwich in early January, our state of limbo was alleviated by our being sent for yet another four days of leave, followed by another week at Woolwich, living and sleeping in barrack rooms at first floor level opening onto a wide balcony projecting above the parade square below. Our predecessors from the days of horse drawn artillery would have brought their horses up from the stables below for currying and exercise on the balcony.
Filling out the waiting time at Woolwich with compulsory runs in Greenwich Park, we finally travelled to Liverpool to board the repaired but rusty old tub of a troopship, the Devonshire, moored at the far and very forlorn end of the Birkenhead docks. The next day we wove a passage out to cross the Mersey to the Liverpool Pierhead, from which so many before us had emigrated either willingly or reluctantly to North America and Australasia. Loading more servicemen for the voyage, after almost three months in limbo we were finally ready for a six week passage to Hong Kong.