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To War With The Bays: 5 - A Man Among Us

During his Army training days at Catterick during World War Two Jack Merewood was one of a party of men detailed to move a piano from the NAAFI to a gym where a sergeants' dance was being held. The day after the dance the piano had to be returned to the NAFFI.

"We got it down from the stage but had to take it the length of the gym to load it onto a wagon. Once we got it moving, we really began to pick up speed, and were soon travelling at a pretty good lick. Then disaster!...''

For earlier chapters of Jack's enthralling story please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

Just down the road from the barracks was Hipswell gym. Here we had a lot of PT. We were also kept fit by having to deliver coal. There was a big coal bunker in the barracks from which we loaded coal into metal tubs with a handle on each side, then to be delivered in the back of a wagon to the houses of officers who lived in the area.

One Saturday night there was a sergeants' dance at the gym. I was one of a number of men detailed to get the piano from the NAAFI in the camp, and take it there and set it up on the stage. There was a corporal in charge of us and when we came for the piano the NAAFI manageress impressed on him that we must handle it with care.

On the Sunday morning we went to collect the piano and return it to the NAAFI. We got it down from the stage but had to take it the length of the gym to load it onto a wagon. Once we got it moving, we really began to pick up speed, and were soon travelling at a pretty good lick. Then disaster! There were some brass rings let in holes in the floor. One of the casters caught in one of these, and the piano came to an abrupt halt. I was at the end of the piano, with my shoulder to it, and it split from top to bottom. With a musical twanging of strings the whole piano fell apart. We picked up the pieces and loaded them onto the wagon.

When we arrived back at the NAAFI the corporal, in fear and trembling, said to the manageress: 'Er . . . we've . . .er, brought back the piano.'

'Well bring it in,' she said.

Another man and I led the way, carrying the keyboard. As more men trooped in with the rest of the remains, the manageress looked to be on the verge of a heart attack. The corporal was held responsible, and the rest of us beat a hasty retreat. The NAAFI was piano-less the rest of the time that I was there. Whether or not they ever got another one I don't know.

Guard duty came round every two or three weeks. Seeing your name on the notice board to be on guard meant that night you reported to the guard room smartly dressed, complete with rifle (no bullets!) at 5.30 p.m. Six of you each night. You teamed up in pairs, then tossed up to choose the relief you wanted to be on. First relief was 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. then again midnight to 2 a.m.; second relief 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. to 4 a.m.; and third relief 10 p.m. to midnight, then 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. We spent the time on guard walking round the barracks, sheds, the huge garage etc. If anyone approached they had to be challenged 'Halt, who goes there?' 'Friend' was the acceptable answer. Life would have been exciting if anyone had answered 'Foe',but no one ever did.

There was a sergeant in charge of the guard, and when the orderly officer came round, usually about 10 to 10.30 p.m., the sergeant bellowed, 'Turn out the guard', and the four remaining men were 'turned out' and inspected by the officer.

We survived the harsh winter of 1939-40. I spent my twenty-first birthday at Catterick. I could have thought of a thousand other places I'd rather have been for that celebration. In fact I can't remember having any celebration in particular. I got some cards, and I had a really nice parcel from home, and one from Ronnie's parents too. So far as I recall that was the extent of it; perhaps I had an extra bun in the NAAFI that night.

There had been a celebration at Christmas. By army tradition, Christmas dinner was always served to the ordinary soldiers by the sergeants and officers. Christmas at Catterick was no exception. Tables were set in long rows, the food was good, turkey, pork and all the trimmings and Christmas pudding, and it was quite an enjoyable novelty to have the sergeants and officers waiting on us. At night there was a dance in the local dance hall. It wasn't like being at home, but at least there was the feeling of Christmas.

April 1940 came. Our training was finished. We could all now drive, operate the wireless or handle the guns, although some were more efficient than others. Every night lists of names appeared on the notice board, headed by the announcement 'The following are to be posted to'... and then the name of the regiment.

One night Ronnie's name was on the board, his future regiment to be the Queen's Bays. My name wasn't on the list. I quickly found our Squadron Leader, a Major Porter, and asked if I could be sent to the Bays to go with Ronnie. I was rather astonished when he put his arm around my shoulders, treating me as if I had done something very brave and said, 'Yes'. The only other men to go from 33 Squad to the Bays were Ted Ryan and Jimmy Turner.

A few days later we were marched down to Richmond Station, led by Captain Pedder. Half way there, we stopped for a rest and were allowed to sit on the grassy bank at the side of the road. To my great surprise and embarrassment, Captain Pedder stood in front and told of my volunteering for this draft because of my friend. His first words were 'There is a man amongst us. . . . ' Apparently this was something unheard of. It caused me extreme embarrassment and to this day I can't understand the fuss it had caused.


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