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U3A Writing: Swearing - A Time And A Place For Everything

John Ricketts recalls the day when he finally made the quietly-spoken sergeant armourer use bad language.

When I joined the RAF in 1945 I was sent to do my initial training, square bashing at Padgate. The majority of the NCOs were foul-mouthed yobs, though nothing like as bad as the army NCOs recently shown on television. The one who stood out from all the others was the sergeant armourer who was a quiet-spoken, patient, middle aged gentleman. He took us in groups of half a dozen and taught us the ins and outs of our rifles, bayonets Sten guns and for the really advanced aircraftsmen second class, the stripping and re-assembling of the Bren guns. He did it all quietly and worked with us until he was certain that even the thickest knew what he was doing.

On the range, each group fired in competition with all the other groups. Each one’s score was recorded and the winning platoon won the kitty to which we had all been volunteered to contribute. It certainly made everyone keen to do his best so that he would not let his mates down. The best shots then fired in competition with other wings. Our quiet fellow won more than his share of the trophies.

The last thing we had to learn about was hand grenades. Again in small groups we were told about the theory, warned of the various lengths of time of the fuses 3 seconds, 5 seconds and 10 seconds. We learned with the dummies how to arm the grenades and last of all given instructions about how to throw the things rather like a cricket bowling action. When all this instruction was completed we were taken to the range to actually throw a live grenade.

We arrived at the arena at about half past seven on a cold, wet morning. The armourer watched us as we aimed a grenade which was then placed safely on a table out of reach. When they were all ready he picked up one of the grenades and went with the rookie into the throwing bay while the rest of us stayed safe in the bunker. At the end of the bay was a wall about four feet high. About fifteen yards in front of the wall were three large rocks set in a triangle - our target.

“When I give you the order, draw the pin with your left hand, lean back, aim and throw the grenade into those rocks. Watch where it lands and then duck behind the wall. Don’t duck until you see where it has landed. O.K. Ready! Pin out! Throw!”

I listened to the instructions, pulled out the pin, aimed, leaned back and swung my arm over and let the grenade go. That was when things started to go wrong. Instead of flying out towards the rocks it flew straight up into the air. We watched open mouthed, rooted to the spot. For what seemed an eternity it hung in the air and then started to descend, all in slow motion. We watched it come down in complete silence. It caught the top of the wall and then fell to the other side.

The silence was broken by the most obscene and blasphemous language it had ever been my privilege to hear. I am sure he hardly repeated himself for several minutes. It was all the more shocking because none of us had ever heard him so much as damn and blast in the past. In those few minutes he had made his point to me much more firmly than the previous weeks of swearing by the other NCOs all together.

The only excuse for my lamentable performance was that I was frozen stiff and that the grenade was wet and slippery.

When all the rest of the fellows had thrown their grenades (a lot more successfully than I had done), the sergeant made me arm another grenade, marched me to the throwing pit and made me throw it which, I think says a lot about the character of the fellow himself.

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