The Guards Depot (Caterham) – 1936

I was born in Jessops Hospital Sheffield in 1918. However, at the age of four my father went to work at Frickley Colliery near South Elmsall in the old West Riding of Yorkshire, there I went to school until I reached fourteen, when my father uprooted us once again to go and live on a small farm in County Fermanagh N. Ireland. I continued school for a while then helped on the farm, but I had no inclination for farming, and as there was no other work to be had, in 1936, shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I joined my father’s old regiment the Irish Guards, in which he had served during World War 1.

At Caterham Guards’ Depot My first port of call was the Guards Depot, in those days at Caterham, and based at Pirbright since 1960. I had hardly passed through the gates of that ‘Make or Break’ establishment, before being marched off to the barber’s shop where a ‘Hair Sadist’ gleefully mowed through my wavy locks in order to achieve a proper regimental back and sides.

We raw recruits were formed into a squad and subjected to the tender mercies of a ‘trained soldier’, a corporal drill instructor, and a grizzled veteran the platoon sergeant. For three weeks we were confined to barracks, not as a punishment, though it felt like it, but in order to learn how to walk and deport ourselves like budding guardsmen before being let loose once more into civilisation. This privilege however, could be problematical for, if one failed the visual procedure at the guardhouse, such as not having brass buttons up to the 100% shiny standard demanded, it was back to the barrack room and try again another day.

I prefer not to dwell overly on those mind boggling weeks of square bashing, rifle drill, P.E., fatigues, inspections, spit and polish; being bawled at by two stripe corporals, three stripe sergeants, and crowned Sergeant Majors; and ritually saluting officers in uniform and anyone in civvies who wore a bowler hat, carried a furled black umbrella and looked like an officer.

Eventually, “Passing Out Parade Day” arrived. I shudder to think what would have been our fate had the squad failed; and the corporal who had chivvied and chased us for weeks, would have to bear the ignominy that befell a Non Commissioned Officer whose squad failed to ‘pass out’ at first try.

After leaving Caterham we joined the 1st Battalion at Wellington Barracks, London. However, we were not destined to enjoy the delights of that city for long. In November 1936 the battalion embarked by troopship for Egypt. Hard army beds had taken some getting used to, but getting into, staying in, and getting out of hammocks was quite an art.

As I write these words and recall those days aboard the troopship, as we sailed past the coast of Spain, I wonder whether, as an eighteen year old, I was conscious of the fact that a bitter civil war was raging in that unhappy country, and that our future enemies were already practising their skills on behalf of General Franco.

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