The Royal Sussex Regiment - Basic Training at Chichester
On the big day, I set off by train for Chichester after saying my farewells to family and friends. I’m afraid my family weren’t very happy at my leaving but I must admit I did feel a bit proud to be going. It seemed to me I was about to do something useful. The thoughts of the realities of war were a long, long way away to me at that time.
On arrival at the barracks I, with quite a few others, reported at the guard room. We were taken to a barrack room which was to be our quarters but no sooner had we got inside than the air raid siren went off. The Sergeant shouted for us to get down on the floor…we thought “what a start this is.” It turned out to be another false alarm or practice once again.
The first two days were spent getting fitted out with uniform, rifle and all our small kit. Then came a hair cut, although I had only just had one a couple of days before. Throughout we were getting the general idea of routines etc. All this was done at a leisurely pace with everybody being friendly and helpful. We thought, “This is a bit of alright”, but we had a rude awakening on the third day.
At an unearthly hour the Sergeant stormed into the room shouting “wakey wakey, come on you lot, outside in one minute, jump to it”. When we lined up outside in ranks of three, he was at it again, yelling “that was a lousy turnout, you’re in the Army now. You haven’t got your mother to wait on you, I’m your mother now and you will do as I tell you at the double. Left turn, quick march, left right left right, come on come on, pick ‘em up, get in step you”. Phew, I think all our heads were spinning a bit. I had heard of what Sergeants were like but thought it was just an exaggerated joke. I was wrong!
From then on it was intensive training, hours on the parade ground, drilling, marching….which we never did right for our dear Sergeant. From each exercise to the next, everything was done at the double. By the end of the week we all ached in every limb. Some moaned about it but surprisingly I was quite happy.
What I enjoyed most was the weapon training and P.T. in the gym. I palled up with a couple of decent chaps, one in particular, Hugh Holford. Although the majority were alright, the odd one or two didn’t mix very well and couldn’t settle down to the strict discipline. When we did rifle and marching drills, we had to shout at the top of our voices “two, three” between each operation, so that we all did it at the same time. God help anyone who dropped his rifle, as some did. The Sergeant was on him like a ton of bricks.
The first weekend I was free with no duties, but no pass, so we spent the time resting, playing cards and going into town. We thought ourselves important going to town in uniform. Everyone seemed very friendly, especially the girls. (Not that I had much to do with them!)
The second weekend I still hadn’t got a pass and I was down for church parade on the Sunday. I paid a chap to stand in for me and slipped out of the grounds through a gap in the fence that was made especially for that purpose, without the Sergeant or Officers knowledge, and went home. When I arrived I was treated as someone special, although my mother was a bit worried that I had come home on French leave. Getting back to the barracks on Sunday night I couldn’t find the gap in the fence in the dark. I was getting a bit worried as I thought I would have to go through the main gate, passing the guard and guardroom and a few days in the glasshouse. What a relief when I, at last, found the gap, lifted the wire and was in. I did that quite a few times and was never caught.
We had a lot of training with the rifle, the bren gun and the anti tank gun covering how it worked, how to strip it down, how to put it back together and how to cure any stoppages etc.
One day, while on parade, the Sergeant asked for volunteers for boxing, which I did with some others. We were then marched to the gym, put through a course and thinned out to the best at each weight. I was lightweight and spent a lot of time training for the Inter Company Matches. My company, No.1 Training Company, got through to the finals which were held on the 4th of December 1939. We lost as a Company, only winning two fights out of eleven. I won mine with a knockout in the first round.
On completion of our eight week basic training we were all pretty good at the drills on the square and could strip and reassemble the Bren and anti tank gun to the satisfaction of our Sergeant….in fact he was quite human towards the end. It was a very hard eight weeks but, I think, we all felt better for it.