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To War With The Bays: 2 - Training At Catterick

...We had a troop sergeant, 'Chesty' Morris, who put the fear of God up us every time we heard his gravel voice. He was what one would imagine a real tough Regular Army sergeant to be like, stocky, of average height, and back as stiff and straight as a ramrod. He had a ruddy face, as though he had lived outdoors for years. The rough red complexion would turn a slight shade of purple if he got mad at us, which was fairly regularly. He carried a short cane or baton tucked tightly under his arm, and every morning he rapped on the barrack-room door with it and rasped out 'On parade'. And if it was perhaps a morning after the night before for him he would add 'at the double', which meant we then ran everywhere until he decided we'd had enough....

Jack Merewood recalls his miserable early days in uniform.

Jack saw action throughout the North African campaign in World War Two and was awarded the military medal. He also fought in France and Italy.

Jack's vivid account of his life as a fighting soldier will be serialised week by week in Open Writing. A new episode will appear every Saturday.

Life at Catterick was not easy. Young men from all walks of life with different natures and outlooks, here together (hopefully) to be moulded into well-trained and disciplined soldiers. Johnson had been brought up on a fairground. He could neither read nor write, but one of his jobs had been to help maintain the vehicles and steam engines, and when it came to mechanics he was a marvel.

Ted Ryan from Wakefield had worked in a grocer's shop. Jimmy Turner, along with his father owned two fish-and-chip shops in South Kirkby. Lin Wood worked in a drawing office in Newcastle and Ronnie Cross from Alnwick was a newspaper reporter, earning when he was called up, the princely sum of 6 a week. My wage in the bakehouse at that time was two pounds thirteen shillings to be increased to 3 a week when I was 21.

We were divided into squads with about twenty men in each. Ronnie and I were in No. 33 squad and soon became firm friends. Most of the boys in the squad were 'Geordies', the rest were from Yorkshire.

I can think of no one who actually liked the army life, but Ronnie hated it. Like all of us, he missed his home and family, but most of all he hated being away from his girl friend, Emily. I too was terribly homesick. These first days were miserable ones. Ronnie and I wrote home every night. What we were able to write about I don't remember, but writing home was a kind of solace. There was a reasonably good writing-room in the NAAFI, and that is where we spent most evenings. (Every camp had its NAAFI - always cups of tea and buns, sweets, cigarettes etc. to be had there.) Of course we had letters from home all the time too; my mother and my sister Jessie did more than their fair share of writing.

The barrack-room in which we lived was an uninviting place, containing the twenty beds of our squad. These were just plain wooden frames on four legs, the frames being joined together with a lattice-work of leather straps and a canvas covering. Then on top of these we put three 'biscuits'. These were like small mattresses, and placed side by side they covered the length of the bed. Three rough grey army blankets and a pillow made the rest of the bed. One blanket covered the biscuits, the others covered you.

There was a stove in the middle of the barrack-room, for which we were allowed wood and coal, but as winter wore on it became colder and once the stove went out at night it was necessary to add our greatcoats on top of the blankets to keep warm. Each morning our beds had to be 'made up', the biscuits piled at the bed head, blankets folded neatly on top of them and the pillow on top.

We had a troop sergeant, 'Chesty' Morris, who put the fear of God up us every time we heard his gravel voice. He was what one would imagine a real tough Regular Army sergeant to be like, stocky, of average height, and back as stiff and straight as a ramrod. He had a ruddy face, as though he had lived outdoors for years. The rough red complexion would turn a slight shade of purple if he got mad at us, which was fairly regularly. He carried a short cane or baton tucked tightly under his arm, and every morning he rapped on the barrack-room door with it and rasped out 'On parade'. And if it was perhaps a morning after the night before for him he would add 'at the double', which meant we then ran everywhere until he decided we'd had enough.

Regularly we had kit inspections. The biscuits were laid on the bed, a blanket spread on top of them, the other blankets folded and, with the pillow, placed at the bed head. Our kit was then laid out on the blanket in the correct order, as per Army regulations - gasmasks, shirts, socks, shaving kit, boot-brushes, holdall etc. A rap on the door with the cane, followed by a gruff 'Stand by your beds', announced the arrival of Chesty accompanied by an officer. Each man then stood smartly at the side of his bed.

We could only wear army boots, never shoes. We had two pairs of boots, one pair for daily wear, the other pair with the toes 'spit and polished' for special occasions like guard duty or church parade. In the holdall (always pronounced 'hod-all' by the Quartermaster) were needles, cotton, wool, etc. We were required to darn our own thick grey socks, something that needed doing often. Only when socks had been darned and re-darned and were obviously beyond any more repair were we able to take them to the Quartermaster's store, where the QM would exchange them for a new pair. Sometimes when tired of sewing on buttons we bought 'bachelor buttons' buttons which could be clipped together through a hole in the trousers.

The object of kit inspections was to check that we had all the kit with which we had been issued, to make sure nothing had been lost (or sold!). Chesty and the officer walked down the room inspecting each bed, and if something was missing would want to know the reason why. Generally excuses were accepted, after a ticking off, then it meant a visit to the stores, and another ticking off by the QM before being supplied with a replacement. If there were serious discrepancies, penalties were handed out, such as extra duties in the cookhouse (potato peeling for example) or other unpleasant duties.

On kit inspection days it was necessary not just to stand by one's bed but also to keep a close watch on everything on it; otherwise a holdall you felt sure you had might suddenly not be there, and someone who you were sure had lost his holdall would miraculously have acquired one. Not everyone was honest, but generally these incidents were few and far between, and in general there was a pretty good feeling of harmony in the barrack-room. If there was any trouble it was usually caused by men who liked to drink. I remember one incident of a boot being thrown across the room one night in the dark and the recipient, a boy called Oliver, sporting a black eye next morning. But all in all there was more of a feeling of comradeship than antagonism, so life in the barrack-room ran reasonably smoothly.

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