BY RICHARD WEST
Copyright is held by the author.
THE RECRUITING sergeant stared at me. I stared back. It was clear he was as puzzled as I was. Why had I been called up in late 1943? My work, as a clerk in a metals fabricator, had been a reserved occupation until now. He didn’t hide his low opinion of my potential value as a soldier. I fully concurred! Somehow turning me into a warrior struck me as bordering on the ridiculous. I am a nervous and timid person, with a soft paunchy build and thick glasses. Oh, did I mention I am a hypochondriac? Hardly the stuff a tough army is made of.
Judging by the lack of a left arm, the sergeant had both professional training and vivid experience. He knew what was required of a real soldier. My father, a veteran of the Indian Army and WW I, would be in full agreement with him. He has a pretty low opinion of me as it is. When as a lad I made a crystal radio set, he stared at me and asked, “When are you going to do something useful?”
“I suspect the army is getting its paperwork messed up after four years of this war,” the sergeant kindly offered.
“Yes, Sir,” I meekly replied.
“No need to get cocky,” he scolded, “you keep your mouth shut, don’t volunteer for anything, and hopefully the war will end before you get shoved into any real soldiering.”
With that guidance, I marched out onto the barracks’ square to face my basic training. This barracks’ parade ground smelled of sweaty bodies and asphalt. It could hold perhaps 20 men. It was not a proper regimental set-up. More of a makeshift effort for this seedy side of S.E. London.
I know even better than the sergeant, or my father, what a hopeless soldier I will turn out to be. I admit, although my stomach is full of large butterflies, I feel rather proud to be in uniform. I could, in theory, help defend my country.
Each morning, during my basic training, I sincerely believed it would be my last in khaki. Why the instructors didn’t kick me out I’ll never know. I made it through six months of “torture” and settled into a steady routine. That recruiting sergeant knew more than he realized. My nightmares included me being sent to some infantry unit on a battlefield in Italy — or worse, Burma! When the moment came for an assignment, I stood at attention as best as I could manage and waited for the dreadful news. A sergeant bellowed it out, for all my platoon to hear.
“Private George Creber, posted to the Ministry of Supply, Westminster, as army clerical liaison.”
The entire group of newly trained soldiers stood with mouths open. How could I be in the army and still go to work each day in the centre of London, just six miles from where I live?
I reported for duty at the Ministry of Supply the next day. A young woman in the building’s foyer, took my orders and curtly informed me:
“You are in the wrong place! Army Liaison has an office near Blackfriars Station.”
Turning on the heels of my polished new boots, I marched back into the London streets to walk the mile to Blackfriars. When I arrived, a Colonel came out from an office and examined my papers.
“OK, George, I assume you are no stranger to paperwork?”
Clearly, normal army protocols didn’t seem to be used in Army Liaison.
“We audit the inventories of stores at MoS factories, warehouses and army barracks. You shouldn’t have much trouble getting the hang of things. By the way, where are you staying?”
“My parents live in Greenwich, Sir. Presently, I have been staying there.”
He nodded and that was that. As predicted, it did not take long for me to settle into the work. Actually, it was quite interesting. I often got to visit all sorts of establishments around the London area. An open Travel Warrant was issued to me. All I had to do was show it at the train or bus station and I’d be given a ticket. By handing in the ticket, the journey was documented in the army records.
My London posting had been a surprise to my parents. When I told them I would be commuting from home, each day, they were even more surprised. Dad mumbled to himself, something about “it has become a ‘daft army,’ that can’t put its soldiers in proper barracks!”
What I have learned is that people at the places I visited paid a lot of attention to my requests. Apparently having a soldier in uniform doing these audits impressed them. I liked the work and was relieved I was not sent off to some dangerous place.
It had been nine months since I joined the Army Liaison team.
D-Day had changed the course of the war, with the allied armies slogging it out in France. In London, we were back to the days of the Blitz, with a terrifying difference. Instead of bombers attacking us, we were constantly under threat from V-1 Flying bombs. We called them “Doodlebugs” because they made a pulsing sound as they flew. When the engine stopped, the machine dropped from the sky and 2,000 lbs of explosives spread death and destruction in the city. We all listened carefully for the approach of a Doodlebug, and only relaxed once it had passed over.
Today, I was visiting a warehouse to check their inventory. I’d decided to go up to Blackfriars first, then on to the warehouse. A bus took me to Catford Station. With ticket in hand, I climbed the stairs to the platform and strolled past the morning commuter crowd. I proceeded to the southern end of the platform to wait for the train. I liked this spot because I could watch the bustle of the road below, while looking down the line for the train. There was a view of a playing field with houses beyond. I could smell new mown grass. The groundsman must had been out early to trim the playing field.
The murmur of conversation from the crowd ebbed away. I strained my ears and a noise caught my attention. It slowly grew louder and focused all of the senses of the people on the platform. In silence, we all gazed south. It was the throbbing of a Doodlebug’s engine, as it pulsed on and off. This one was definitely getting closer!
The continuously pulsing throb grew louder, announcing its dreadful presence amid our morning commute. There it was! A small airplane like object, with flame shooting out of its tail. It seemed to be coming down the railway line at about 1,000 feet. It was coming straight for me!
Everyone dropped down to the platform and put their hands over their heads and ears, to try to protect themselves, as best they could. I felt the awful throbbing spread through all my limbs and body. I was unable to move! I stood like a statue! I was imprisoned within the throbbing, and completely frozen by the noise and sight of the dreadful machine bearing down on me.
It flew straight over the top of the station and disappeared down the line. The noise then stopped! There was silence. This was the signal that it would crash and blow up. We all waited. Twenty seconds, perhaps more? There was a terrible explosion from up the line towards the city. It would fly no more! How many had been killed or hurt, I’d never know. I only knew that I was safe!
Everyone was on their feet and a crowd was gathering around me. Someone slapped me on the back and a woman was shaking my hand. They thought I had stood at attention to defy the awful flying bomb. Inside, my body was still throbbing with that ungodly frequency of the Doodlebug. I wanted to scream, but no noise would come from my mouth!
A policeman was speaking to me, and shooing the crowd away. He seemed to have understood that I was petrified, but he didn’t seem to care.
“Now Private, why don’t you come to the station office? We may be able to find a cup of tea for you.”
I allowed myself to be led away. Anywhere, where there were no flying bombs!
Olive wriggled her long body into her armchair, balancing a cup of tea in one hand. I knew her ways so well, although now I can’t see her, except as a shadow. Clearly she was preparing to have one of her chats with me. I grumbled back at her headmistress insights into my character and behaviour. Olive was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“George, you didn’t have to unload on your nephew quite like that.”
“Yeah, but if I don’t tell him the way it was, there is no-one else left who can.”
“I know you fell out with your dad, but your nephew doesn’t need his grandfather’s memory blackened.”
“He never forgave me for being pushed out of the army on a medical discharge. As far as my father was concerned, I was just a failure. As for spending over a month in the hospital, he always said I was playing the hypochondriac to get out of uniform. I wasn’t.”
“George, it was over 60 years ago. You need to let it go,” Olive pleaded.
“Anyway, for a hypochondriac you cope better than anyone I’ve ever come across. You have survived colon cancer, have heart failure and are blind. That takes courage, George Creber!”
Staring in Olive’s direction, I felt proud that she could recognize the challenges in my old age. What I have not told her, and never will, was even at 87 I can still feel the throbbing of that engine through my entire body, every day. When I sleep, it’s what keeps me company and it’s what wakes me in the morning.