Drill, Polish, Drill, Polish..
A Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry National Serviceman’s Experiences
Bodmin to Bermuda 1955 - 1957
Bodmin Days, F.J. Pakes 23176144. No 1 Platoon Training Company, Victoria Barracks, Bodmin.
In my first letter home I was able to report that we had a first lecture today in which the Lieutenant in a very cultured voice said, “Don’t write home to your parents and say that this place is bloody awful, because it isn’t true”. I added, actually the place isn’t all that bad - a remark that saw some modification in the ensuing weeks! Food, which was to be a constant subject in all my letters, received a first mention. For tea we had two pieces of bread and jam, a rock cake, and a plate of potatoes, peas and fish. A very early piece of training got a mention in this first letter. We had to practice making our bed roll for inspection - it looks like this (sketch above right.)
But I soon returned to more important matters. The NAAFI is pretty good. Bacon costs 1/-, chips 2d, tomatoes on toast 4d, beans on toast 3d. A pint of orange squash costs 6d. However clearly my trip to the NAAFI was also for something else - items that were staple to us basic trainees and items which were continuously to be replenished. I bought Brasso, polish, and dusters and blanco all at a cost of 3/9d. The reason for this purchase was to become clearer in my next letter home where I was able to complain that even though this is Sunday and I have spent the whole day doing nothing else but blanco and polish my kit. You ought to see what we have to do for a kit inspection tomorrow. We have had to box 4 socks like this and arrange it all in perfect order. Then back to my favourite subject, food - it varies but isn’t bad. The accommodation received mention further on. The beds are really comfortable and are one of the few consolations. Hindsight suggests that this may have been due to the exhausted sleep we conscripts fell into each night in our training. Despite the food and the beds my overall feelings about my situation could not be concealed from my parents. (No 1 Platoon above left. FP centre 2nd row, penguin mascot at attention. Note clenched fists in front row - a show of toughness or dirty fingernails?) (Below top right "Alfie"Luke & Michael Stephens lower right, Truro mates of Fraser)
(Photos left: Our constant companions during training) I don’t mind telling you I’m getting really bored with this life and its only my first week. The reason for this disconsolate remark was probably due to my closing words in this letter. I have spent over half my money on cleaning materials so far. Pardon the excruciatingly bad writing but I am writing this letter while expecting to have to clean the floor any moment. In my next letter dated Wednesday September 21st 1955 (including a date with my letters was not usual - I was more concerned with how many weeks had passed) things were obviously heating up as far as the training was concerned. I have really started my training now and have completed 1 week of my training. We get up now at 6:15 a.m. and have to be ready for breakfast at 6:45. The only time we get off is in the evening after 6 o’clock when we are free. However we have to spend most of that time cleaning our kit for the next day. In particular I wished to note that my boots are comfortable (2 pairs) and I am in the process of polishing the best pair. The toe caps of the latter have to be covered in black boot polish and then pressed with a heated spoon, to get a flat surface. Then you run it under a cold tap and then spit and polish it! Could you please send me a tin of black boot polish and a couple of dusters; they would save me some money?
Even though only 18 years of age I was clearly beginning to feel that I was in a man’s world. To emphasise my situation especially to my mother I gleefully reported. We have been told today that in the Infantry “You must close with the enemy and KILL him”. Further, we’ve been issued with our rifles and have them in a clamp by our bed with bayonets fixed. We also have to polish a clip of bullets each day. This description of soldierly maturity was tempered somewhat a little later in the letter by reporting that I had, as many others before me had done and others after me would do. The other day I didn’t salute an officer and he nearly threw me in the guardhouse. On the same day I saluted the Regimental Sergeant Major and he nearly collapsed with rage.
By the time of my next letter there was a new experience to mention. We had two injections on Friday evening and the boy from Chacewater who sleeps next to me collapsed that night and had to go to hospital. I went earlier to bed and felt really rotten. I felt cold and had to put my overcoat on top of my blankets, then I felt hot, then cold. On Sunday I felt better but most of the rest of the room were in bed. I have to have two more injections tonight so I am feeling really cheerful. Beside my sarcasm, I was still clearly bored. The hope was that we will be starting to train on the rifle ranges this week and that may be more interesting. The subject of money too was becoming of continuing interest. We were paid on Thursday last and received £1 (less than usual because of expenses in first week). I find I can make do on perhaps 2/6 a day, so that’s not so bad. We haven’t been able to start saving yet; we can start saving at the beginning of October the Pay Sergeant told us. My letter closed with what was to become the most frequently mentioned theme in all my basic training letters - visits home. I hope to be able to come home sometime during this weekend but I can’t tell you the times as they depend in what time we are let out, probably it will be about Sunday dinner time, but I shall definitely have to be back at the Barracks by 1 minute to midnight on Sunday.
(Bodmin beacon: courtesy cornwalls photos )
See also Francis Frith photos website for photographs of old Bodmin and surrounds circa 1955)
My next letter opened with a bang. We fired our first live rounds yesterday and my ears are still popping from the noise. Life was becoming more interesting and we had a cross country race of 4 miles yesterday between the two platoons. Also on Monday we watched the novices Inter Regiment Boxing Match in the Depot. The DCLI won by 20 points to 12 against REME. We had a rifle test yesterday, but even so frustrations were never far away for me. I thought tonight I would try and get an early night’s sleep so I worked hard to get my kit done for the morning. I finished it by 7.30 and put my pajamas on and went to wash. On my way back the corporal saw me and asked me what I was going to do. I replied I was going to bed early. He then proceeded to make me bring all my stuff and found fault with it all. So I can’t go to bed now and after this letter I shall have to get on with cleaning it. Still, my letter closed on an optimistic note. I am looking forward to my ‘36’ (hour leave) as you can guess. I shall put my ‘civvies’ on directly I get home. My next letter was filled with cleaning issues, boredom, requests for more funds and a dismal report that we have just had our first tests on the machine gun and I made a muddle of almost every one of them.
The next letter opened on the subject of injections. We had our injections yesterday (second Typhoid, 75%) but only one boy has collapsed so far! A new activity was announced. Tomorrow I have to do fire picket from 2 o’clock in the afternoon to 6.30 on Monday morning on 2 hour shifts. Also we went on the range again the other day and had a little competition in the platoon. We all paid 1d for a bullet and the one who hit the required spot on the target won all the money. I had two tries and missed and then had one more and won 3/-. I hit a 3” bull from 200 yards which I think you’ll agree with me isn’t bad shooting. On the barrack room front I noted we’ve got the stove going in our room now so we keep quite warm now and at last that the new Intake comes in next Thursday and we are all looking forward to boys who know less than us coming in. This was half way through training and so, 5 weeks from now and I shall be having dinner with you on my first day of leave. At this time too my parents received a form letter from Lieut. M.D.A. Gilliat. I know they appreciated its contents at the time and so do I, reading it once again after all those years.
- I’m in my sixth week now. My next letter began, and then continued, I did fire picket on Sunday as you know, my shifts were from 6 - 8, 12-2am, 5.30 - 6.30. I couldn’t sleep at all but the time went quickly enough. The big event of the week however was clearly something else. We’ve just had a big kit inspection. We had to have all our kit on our beds so I did my kit the night before and slept on the floor with an overcoat over me! The Company Commander was very pleased with the room which is something. The next letter had little to report save that. we have just started learning about the grenade and we’ll have to throw one before the end of our training. When the time came to throw a grenade we had to throw it in the direction of an oil barrel. I was extremely anxious to get the grenade out of my hands as quickly as possible and without really worrying about direction. “Who threw that one ?” called out the officer in charge after the explosion. “Pte Pakes” called out the sergeant. “Well done, Pakes”. The grenade had gone straight into the oil drum. (2 Photos above left and below right show Armistice Day Parade 1955: Bodmin Township, Victoria Barracks and DCLI Memorial: Rain is standard issue)
I was very pleased to report in the next letter that I hear the passing out parade has been put back to 11 o’clock in the morning. I’m certainly looking forward to that day and it’s not so far ahead now, although not mentioned in any of my letters I had obviously been told I was to go on a Clerk’s course at the end of training. The new Intake is going to Cyprus so there is a good chance that I might go there as well as I’m going on this Clerk’s course. Another item of note in this letter was an observation that Life is certainly not so bad now except for the occasional setbacks like the inspection we had at 9.30 last night because someone spilt Brasso on the floor. Clearly cleaning was still a major occupation. My boots are coming on nicely and should look like patent leather soon.
We did have music while you worked though. Songs such as "Rose Marie" by Slim Whitman, and "The Man from Laramie" by Jimmy Young, (YOU TUBE: Jimmy Young The Man from Laramie & Slim Whitman Rose Marie ) as well as others like "The Yellow Rose of Texas", drifted around the barrack room from the little 'wireless' we had there. This letter concluded - I have just heard I’m on prowler picket tonight which will be lovely as the rain is pelting down and the wind is blowing great guns. Still we’re on the range tomorrow so I shall have no kit to get ready.
(Photo left: Passing out parade 25th November 1955) Even with the training weeks almost over the discipline and expectations were still very much alive. As my next letter explained: We have just been on the parade ground for 2 hours drilling and doubling round the square because we were idle, so you can imagine how tired we feel and as if this were not enough, we have a night parade tonight in which we are attacking No 2 platoon in a maneuver. Despite all this, the barrack room antics were obviously proceeding undaunted. I had to report that, they had fixed my bed with holly and sand which was very uncomfortable at 12:10 at night. Also when I opened my locker door a mug of water flew out and drenched me and to cap it all I take my Army exam on Monday.
(Photo left below: essential bedtime reading - standard issue booklet) No further letters home were written home at this time. The next major event being our passing out parade, and home leave - embarkation leave for both platoons who were going to Jamaica, and pre-clerks course leave for me, and for one other - ‘Alfie’ Luke.
After a short leave my address became for one month 17/55 Unit Clerks Course, Infantry Clerks Training Centre, The Barracks, Chichester. I enjoyed the total change of scene from Bodmin and particularly my accommodation. You should see our barrack room, it’s heaven compared with Bodmin. We have curtains, a mat by each bed, 6 blankets! and I can touch from my bed a radiator which is very warm at the moment. Looking ahead I reported that. If we work well we will probably have weekend passes every week. We get a Christmas leave but it doesn’t look as though I shall get a free travel warrant as those tickets are for use on privileged leaves. As to the work period we had our first lesson today learning abbreviations and the various job of the clerks. We apparently get little else to do beside our lessons. There is one muster parade every other day and a room inspection in between. We get 10 minutes drill a day! The drill was made more interesting because as there were representatives from many regiments everyone has different timings and so everyone gets out of step. (Photo above right: Clerk's Training Course - a regimental hodge podge December 1955).
December 1955: My next letter, the first I had ever typed, expressed concern about getting home from Chichester. I had a great shock when I found how much it costs to get home (Truro) from here. It costs £1 8s single. Another grumble of course about food. The meals here are atrocious and we rarely get to eat much at any of them. but the slack conditions which prevail here make our life quite agreeable. The muster parades are very easy to get through; the room inspections are even easier. I was glad to add I shall only have to return to Chichester for 2 days after Xmas in order to take my tests and then I return to Bodmin. I hope then that I shall have my embarkation leave straight away; if not it will mean that I shall probably be put on the permanent staff.
(Required reading for my posting "Bermuda cradled in warm seas'"National Geographic February 1954: Promising prospects, not many similarities with Victoria Barracks!) Returning to Bodmin after my course I reported, along with Pte Luke to the office there. It was clear that both of us were intended for permanent staff. Permanent staff in Bodmin for two years did not impress us especially as we were now in the thick of winter. We both expressed strong desires to join our regiment elsewhere. I think both of us were surprised at the sympathetic hearing we received. The response was something to the order of “Well we had wanted you here but if you really want to go then we should not stop you”. And so once more we went on leave, this time really embarkation leave for - Bermuda. I don’t know how much pre-knowledge us NS men had of the posts the DCLI were in at that time. For myself I knew a little about British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, and Bermuda because I was a stamp collector so at least knew where they were in the world. However on my leave I began to look-up more information on Bermuda. Of course the old standby, the National Geographic, was an easy source and I soon found an article (1953) that gave me some information and certainly a strong desire to go there.
Returning once more to Bodmin Barracks I and Luke of course found ourselves with an unfamiliar platoon. I have little memory of what went on in the period before being transported out of Bodmin but I clearly remember gathering on the station platform Monday January 30th, 1956 to await the train that would take us to London. In a letter written the next day I explained what followed: I have just arrived in London after travelling all night in a nice slow train which went the Bristol way. There were 6 of us in the compartment, all trying to get to sleep and not succeeding. When we did eventually get to Paddington we were all lined up on the platform and marched off. However the column soon got scattered and there was general chaos. We crowded in and out of the tube trains until we reached Goodge Street. The place we have to stay at is the most awful place I’ve been in in the Army. It’s an old tube line. We had to walk down hundreds of feet of stone spiral steps. The sleeping quarters are along the sides of the old tube walls, the rooms all lead off from the old line which is of course dead straight and long. You stand one end of the line and look for miles down to the other end. (Photo above left is the old Goodge St Tube station, now the Eisenhower Centre).
Goodge Street station was one of the London stations that had a deep level air raid shelter from WWII years. One entrance to it was on Chenies St and the other on Tottenham Court Road. I didn’t mention then that if you slept on the top bunk your face was right close to the curving tunnel ceiling. The worse news we had was that we can’t fly today (Tuesday) so that means spending a night here and with the tube trains rumbling overhead it isn’t all that good. Still I expect I’ll go out soon and go to the pictures which, along with two other friends I did. London was at its January worst - cold, wet, grey and gloomy. With the prospect of a night in the Goodge Street station ahead, it was hard to enjoy oneself. I didn’t realise at the time that the memories of these last hours in England were to only intensify the marvellous impact that the arrival in Bermuda was shortly to make on me.
My next letter, dated Thursday 2nd February 1956 and started over Bristol, related further hold-ups: We didn’t take off on the evening, the plane had something wrong with it. So we had a meal at the expense of BOAC in their restaurant. (Of course another night in Goodge Street !) We took off this morning (Thursday ) at 10:30. We shall be in Shannon at 12 o’clock. Like most of the boys I was with, let alone parents at the time, this was my first experience of being in a plane and so my letter continued with a detailed naive, description of the wonders around me. Now ‘old hat’ of course it’s still a reminder of the joys of discovering something new and ‘exotic’ when flying was fun and not the stressful experience it has become these days. It was tremendously exciting climbing the steps leading to the entrance of the plane. I have a seat right next to the window. I press a little button at the side of the seat and the thing sinks back and I can sleep. I have a pillow which I shall use. I have also a travelling rug. The take-off was exhilarating - everyone went ‘oo-aah!’ No one was sick though . Newspapers were handed around and then cigarettes. I have just surveyed the array of drinks on the trolley the steward has wheeled to my side, I casually ordered a dry Martini. I am drinking it now. Next time I shall have a gin. We are flying across the sea now towards Ireland. Cigarettes are 2/6 for 25. After the plane touched down in Shannon we were able to have lunch at the airport and look around the duty-free shop (another first-experience). Then: Well we’re in the air again with 10 hours ahead of us before touching down in Gander, Newfoundland. We’ve climbed to 6000’. I shall try and get some more sleep now.
The letter was continued again at 4 o’clock when the sleep was interrupted by: rough weather - we’ve been handed little paper bags!, told to fasten our safety belts. 4.30 well, we can undo our safety belts now. No one was sick. Apparently the drinks trolley remained constantly in use and was much appreciated. 5.45 the drinks certainly flow freely here, the trolley is like a moving off - license. We’ve had an afternoon tea and sandwich and biscuit. 6:20 the trolley has actually come around again. Between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. dinner was served on the plane. The meal, described in detail in the letter, bore little similarity to today’s flight offerings - 1st course, soup (tomato): 2nd course, Lobster and salmon, egg, lettuce etc. red wine: 3rd course, leg of chicken, brussel sprouts, potatoes: 4th course, pineapple and whipped cream, cheese and biscuits, fruit, liqueur and coffee. Phew!
More sleep followed before the letter was continued again at 7:30 local time Gander Airport. When we stepped off the plane at Gander the temperature was 20 degrees. There were lots of American men standing around in furs and things, the airport was selling goods at terrific prices all of course in dollars. My postcard cost in all. 2/6d. We are now climbing to 18000’ (heavily underlined) for the run to Bermuda in 5 hours 30 minutes. More fitful sleep evidently took place before the letter’s next simple statement, 2 a.m. We’re here.
My letter, (continued the day following,) gives only the bare details of the arrival - the fact that the night temperature was 62 degrees, that there was a lovely sea breeze. It did not mention the scents of cedar and lilies that pervaded the islands, the warmth we felt. I think many of us carrying memories of Goodge Street, and grey and dismal London in January thought we had died and gone to Heaven. Looking out into the night from the back of the army truck transporting us to Prospect we caught tantalising glimpses of the island, its houses, and its residents. A new chapter in our National Service was beginning.
Bermuda Motto "Whither the fates carry us"