I got off the train at Wool station onto the waiting truck of boys bound for Bovington, Dorset. We were all being taken to the Boys’ Squadron Royal Armoured Corps. I found the silence a little awkward inside the truck, so I broke it.
“Anyone else here from London?” I asked and looked around, but no one answered. “Any Chelsea supporters?” still no response. They just stared. I gave up trying to get a conversation going and pregnant silence prevailed. I supposed they were all nervous. It never occurred to me that they had never seen a black boy before. It was a short journey to the camp and as soon as we arrived at the guard house, the silence ended. Officers of various ranks were there to meet us and as we got off with our cases one of them told us to keep all our bags in our hands. Instructions were shouted at us,
“You’re all soldiers in the British Army now, so you’d all better start behaving like soldiers.” As one officer called out the orders, another told us how to carry out that order, and how to stand to attention. Major Buck Taylor of the Royal Tank Regiment introduced himself to us.
“You’re going to be the future of the British Army and The British Empire,” he said to us at the start of his very long speech. “This is a place for learning, a place for training young men to be future officers of the British Army. This is a training institute where you will be taught many new things and above all you will be taught how to stay fit by doing lots of sport. We need healthy minds in healthy bodies. When you reach 18, you will be sent to the regiment of your choice, but all these regiments will be in the Royal Armoured Corps. There are the Tanks, the Dragoons, the Hussars, the Enniskillins, the Bays, the Lancers and the Carbineers.” It all meant absolutely nothing to me. I wondered what he was talking about.
Then Sergeant Major Rose introduced himself to us all.
“Anyone here like sport?” he asked. He soon got us all relaxed and telling him who played cricket and who played football. I liked him instantly. “By the time you leave here you’ll all be very fit,” he said. “You’ll do lots of physical activities, fitness training, battle-training, lots of map-reading and sword and command.” It sounded so exciting. “No civilian clothing will be allowed here, so you’ll be given uniform to wear, a piece of brown paper and a piece of string and shown how to pack up all your civilian clothes in it. Then you’ll write your name and home address on it and we’ll post it back there for you.”
The rest of the day was spent with the provo-sergeant. “I’m here to make sure you conduct yourselves properly around the camp,” he told us. “You’ll be taught how to march and do rifle drill. You must be properly dressed at all times and keep your surroundings neat and tidy. We don’t want to see litter anywhere, so catch anything you see flying around camp. You’re all minors, so God help anyone I catch smoking. If you see anything strange, unusual or wrong, you report it to the guard room. When the flag is lowered in the evening and the last post is played, you stop whatever you are doing and stand to attention to show respect. There’ll be no shouting. You approach people in the proper way and say what you have to say. You’ll all have the same haircut, the barber will see to that. You will not deface your uniform, but you’ll be told more about that when you get your kit,”
An officer from the Education Corps arrived and took over from him at this point. After introducing himself, he said,
“You’ll all have to march into Bovington Village every day to get your education. It’s about 400 yards up the road. Members of the Army Education Corps will teach you everything you need to know and you will have to sit exams at the end of it all. You’ll have to work very hard to pass the exams and get the Junior Certificate, and after that the Intermediate Certificate and finally the Senior Certificate. There will be wireless training, map-reading, gunnery, small arms courses, loading guns and a tank commander’s course. First of all you’ll have to learn how to march properly, slow and quick march, right turn, about turn and how to salute officers and fellow soldiers. The drill sergeant will do this. Some of you have been working as miners, chimney sweeps, and many different jobs but now you’re going to be trained as professional soldiers and future officers of the British Army. I hope you’ll all pass the tests so that you can join the regiments of your choice at the end of your training, but if you don’t reach the standard we require, you’ll be sent back home.” There was so much new information to take in that most of us had forgotten what we’d been told by the end so we had to ask each other to find out what we’d missed.
After that we were taken to the quartermaster’s stores to get all our bedding and carry it to our billets. I was in Blenheim Troop so our billet was on the other side of the camp near the tank museum. Along the way there was a friendly buzz as older boys we passed in Waterloo Troop teased and jeered at us carrying our mattresses and other things. I don’t think they had seen a black boy before, so I was the focus of their attention. The billet was a large wooden hut with a solid fuel stove and chimney pipe in the middle. There were twelve beds to a room. Each of us had his own locker, a bed, a mattress, 3 blankets, 2 sheets, a pillow and 2 pillowslips. Every Saturday we would have to change the bedding for clean ones. Inside the billet, instructors showed us how to make and unmake our beds and make up the bed pack. It was meticulous attention to detail that appealed to me.
Next was uniform. In a process spread out over the next few days we had to collect the items from different stores in various parts of the camp. It was to help us to get to know the layout and location of the buildings. There was uniform for summer and winter: pyjamas, underwear, socks and boots, P.E. kit and pumps, steel helmet, beret and gas mask, denims, mess tins, a mug, knife, fork and spoon and a housewife for mending our kit. Once we had our uniform on, we were shown how to fold our civilian clothes, pack them up in the brown paper and address the parcel to our family home. We also had to mark our army number on each item of kit so it could be sent to the laundry, tied in a neat roll, so that we would get back the right uniform when it had been cleaned.
Back at the drill square on that first day, Sergeant Major “Minty” Rose addressed us all and told us what he expected of us. He stood out from the other officers. He had real presence and looked supremely fit. He must have been a good sports man. I liked him instantly. He came across as a caring father who understood the fears and feelings of his young charges and yet he stood no nonsense.
“Don’t let your friends down,” he said. “Don’t break promises. If you do wrong, don’t lie, admit it. If you do, you might even get let off for telling the truth. If you have a problem and don’t get it solved, come to me. If you don’t know something, always ask. Don’t miss meals or be late or you will get punished, and finally, don’t forget! Remember a forgetful soldier is a dead soldier. Leave your past behind. This is a new life for you.” The words made a big impression on me. No one had ever spoken to me like that before. Over the days and weeks to come he moulded us in this paternal way. He knew everybody, took a personal interest in every one of us and never raised his voice or shouted. We all loved “Minty.”
Settling in in the early days was not without a few problems, but since my earliest childhood days, I had always had to stand up for myself and I wasn’t about to change in this new environment. One day, while I was standing in the queue for dinner, an older boy, Dunne who was a boy-sergeant from Cambrai Troop, pushed in front of me in the queue and told me to go to the back.
“Why?” I asked him.
“Because I’m tellin’ you to, Blackie,” he said. It was the first and only time anyone had ever called me that since I had arrived in England. I was shocked and angry.
“Don’t call me that! I’m Boy Joseph,” I said, which was my rank title. He laughed and with his mess-knife, he ran through all the buttons on my tunic front, cutting them off, and sent me out of the mess hall to sew them back on properly before I could eat. I would have to report back to him before I could have my dinner, since his rank as boy-sergeant was a bit like a kind of prefect. I did as I was told and by the time I got back to him, dinner had finished and I didn’t get any. Other boys who had watched what happened told me to report him but I didn’t. Instead I made up my mind to get my revenge on him before either of us left Boys’ Squadron. A number of staff members who had heard about the incident from onlookers asked me if it was true and I laughed. “Where did you get that idea from, Sir? It never happened to me.” After that, the incident was probably forgotten by most but not by me. I would set it right myself, and so I did in the inter-troop Boxing Championship when I knocked him out in the fight.
I had only been in Boys’ Squadron for a month or two. Some of the boy leaders who had rank were bullies who took advantage of the smallest and weakest of us. Just like in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” we were treated like fags in a boarding school and in my case, I objected to being called “Sambo”, “23:59” or “Captain Midnight”. Because I always answered back, they threatened me with what they would do to me. Regardless of their size, I always said,
“Come on then, Try it!” This didn’t go down well, so three or four of them would gang up on me in a more threatening way and I would threaten back, to get them in their sleep. Andy Keerstensen, a popular boy, a brilliant footballer, comic and impersonator whom we all loved was also being victimised like me, but couldn’t stand up to them like I did. He broke down and decided to run away. I was his best mate so I went with him to support him. It happened one day while we were out of barracks, when he suggested going to London on the train from Wool station and dodging the ticket inspectors. We reached his house in London, but the military police were there making enquiries about Andy as he had gone missing, so we were caught red-handed and taken back to Bovington. We did our punishment, but Andy left Boys Squadron soon after this. “Minty” Rose helped me to realise the folly of letting friends influence me and I vowed never again to follow anyone, however much of a friend they were.
After that, I settled into life and sport and became very successful with all my sporting activities, but there were still one or two boys (NCO’s) who were jealous of my success and continued to pick on me. One of these boys’ Cooper, one day came with his mates to get me from my billet. He walked in leaving his henchmen outside and said to me,
“You shouldn’t be here, this is only for white boys like us and we’ve come to get rid of you. You’re getting too big for your boots, Zeebo!” They dragged me off to the showers saying that they were going to scrub me white so I would fit in better.” They got bass brooms , mops and squeegees and tried to push me into the full bath, but I wriggled free, pushing a couple of them into the bath instead of me. Then I ran back into the billet and jumped up into the loft taking a “bumper” broom with me. As I looked down through the open loft hatch, I watched Cooper and three of his friends come running after me into the billet, looking around.
“We know you’re in ‘ere,” they shouted, then, “Look, he’s gone up in the loft!” They didn’t know I had a bumper up there with me. So as soon as I saw Cooper looking up at the hatch, I dropped the bumper down on his head and heard his cries of pain as the others scarpered. He lay there unconscious and I climbed down to face the music and punishment I would inevitably receive. I was scared as to what would happen. The permanent staff, police and medic soon appeared and took me away in a Landrover to the medical centre where doctors asked me what happened. I explained. I broke down,
“I want to get out of this place,” I said and went on to tell them about the bullying these boys had subjected me to.
“Are you sorry for what you’ve done?” they asked me.
“No,” I said.
“But surely you feel sorry to have put someone in hospital?”
“No. I wish I’d killed him” I said, meaning every word of it.
Things got a lot better after that incident, however. The bullies all left me alone and seemed to melt away as if they had never existed. Luckily, I didn’t kill Cooper, or my life would have gone in a very different direction.
If you enjoyed reading this blog and want to find out how I put these early challenges behind me and went on to achieve some success in Boys Squadron in sport, music and how I came to be a Hussar in the regular professional army,,,,,,then click on the “follow” pop-up tab at the bottom right hand corner of this page and you will be sent an automated email every time I post another page.