in the garden

 

Oct 2010 Journal

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The pioneering spirit

Joining the Pioneer Corps was easy. In the old days they emptied the prisons for recruits; in l941 they raided internment camps. This is how I came to be digging ditches in Scotland in 1942 while living under canvas, admittedly on the estate of the Earl of Home, which afforded me some excellent fly fishing. When I got to know him much later, after he had resigned as prime minister, I confessed to poaching in his rivers. He was very good about it and even inscribed one of his books for me. No Sassoon wrote poetry about us. Instead, when I shot a rabbit for the pot while on guard duty, I narrowly escaped being court-martialled.

Escape is what most of us had in mind – to Hollywood, to join the commandos, to OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit), into the RAF. (The Senior Service was a tough nut for Jewish boys from Vienna to crack.) The greatest escape artist of all was Arthur Koestler, with whom I briefly overlapped in 251 Company of the Pioneers. He must have been, by a Hungarian mile (which is, of course, longer than the standard mile), the most unpopular soldier in the British Army. His proficiency in avoiding the hardships of army life became the stuff of legend, chronicled in a magisterial biography which appeared last year. Koestler, having faced a firing squad and every conceivable hardship of the multiple refugee, had paid his dues and was entitled to swing the lead. He had powerful friends who saw to it that he landed in a cushy billet. A man of heroic intellect but hard to love.

Lacking powerful friends and the Hollywood connection I craved, I set about working my own passage to more congenial employment. For no better reason than that my father had been in the artillery – albeit in a different war under a different monarch – I applied for transfer to the Royal Artillery. You can gauge my innocence from the fact that I volunteered for two specialisations which are, after parachuting and the commandos, responsible for the highest casualty rates in training, never mind combat: despatch riding and anti-tank gunnery - so much so that there was an allowance, respectively, of 1.7 and 1.2 per cent fatalities in training. It meant that the officer i/c of the course was permitted that number of ‘kills’ before having to face a court of inquiry. I got these figures much later from a friend in the War Office, while enjoying the relative safety of the Burma campaign.

The despatch riders’ course was actually quite jolly – if you survived it. We each had our own BSA 500 cc motor cycle, governed down to a maximum speed of 50 mph. So the first concern was to find a mechanically adept fellow rider able to remove the governor and restore the original speed. Having inherited a fairly clapped-out model, I never got it to do more than 80 mph but some of my more ambitious colleagues managed to ‘do the ton’. We were taught how to negotiate rough terrain, ford shallow rivers, direct military traffic, motor cycle maintenance, and a host of other skills, the most important of which was to remount your bike without complaint after falling off, which happened several times a day. Some of us became reasonably proficient and in the end quite daring. Moonlight motor cycle races became a favourite, strictly forbidden, pastime; the chaps who found ways of accounting for the petrol illicitly consumed were the types who usually got secondment to Bletchley, working on breaking down Enigma.

The fun ceased abruptly when we had to put our new skills to practical use, which was the escorting of military convoys, speeding ahead of them, posting oneself at the next junction, and directing them to their destination. This was done by waiting until the last vehicle had passed, then overtaking the convoy, racing ahead to the next point, and starting all over again. This was all right during daylight hours, though never less than dodgy, because the guns and other trailers had a tendency to swing, or were made to swing by our lorry drivers with a perverted sense of humour. At night it became a deadly game. We were issued with route maps and torches but not allowed to use the latter in the blackout. The lorries had no rear lights and pinpoint headlights. The territory was always unfamiliar. If there was no moon, one had to overtake a long line of vehicles without any idea of how much room there was between them and the ditch or trees lining the side of the road. If one fell off, one either hit a tree or finished up under the carriage of a 17-pounder anti-tank gun. Any rider who claimed he wasn’t scared was a liar. The men who drove the big army lorries couldn’t see either, but at least they were sitting in their cabs, looking down on us. ‘Bloody boy racers,’ they called us but we got to the pub before they did, and pulled all the birds.

Anti-tank training easily claimed its statistically predicted share of victims. Firing a 6-pounder with its extension tucked under one’s arm was not all that dangerous in training, but guaranteed deafness in later life. When they were replaced by 17-pounders, life got easier. What produced the casualties were the sticky bombs, a round ball of explosive on a handle which one was supposed to attach to an enemy tank under cover of darkness and then walk - not run - back to one’s vehicle in the 7-second gap before the charge exploded. A totally mad idea; I don’t know whether it was ever used in the field. I hope not. What I do know is that many sprint records were broken by unsung sportsmen who did the 100 m in well under 10 seconds before the record was officially recognised.

Officer training provided a brief respite from these hardships although passing out had a sting to its double meaning. My final act of heroism to earn the coveted single pip of a second lieutenant was to run - not walk - up Snowdon in full kit, with a Bren gun on my shoulder, and then – much harder – to run down the other side. The sergeant instructor’s encouragement was grudging: ‘Come on, you idle cadet, we haven’t got all day!’ He knew that the very next day he would have to salute the newly-commissioned me.
 

Victor Ross

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