In February 1946, after three years as a crewman in 9 and 4 RTR my life changed when the Fourth reached Palmanova, in North East Italy. I was summoned to the PRI’s office (they had found out from my record that I had been a junior clerk prior to military service) and I was detailed to take over the regimental canteen while the incumbent NCO was on leave. It was a nice little job and I was determined not to lose it. During the time the incumbent was away on leave I made such an impression on the PRI, Captain Tom Fawcett MC, that by the time he returned I had the job. We were more than eighty miles from a proper NAAFI so I started to create a first class canteen/social club.
We distributed the weekly rations, cigarettes, soap, and razor blades that we collected from a huge RASC depot in Udine and we were issued with furniture and the obligatory piano; my life was transformed. I spent the remainder of my military career in charge of that canteen, surviving my SSM’s attempts to get me back to duty and a takeover bid from another Junior NCO while I was on leave. I was promoted to Acting Unpaid Corporal, three promotions and not a penny piece extra, that’s the British Army for you. Under my control I had a Trooper, two local girls to serve the lads and two SEP’s to do the labouring. SEP’s! I bet that foxes you. These were surrendered enemy personnel; they considered themselves a class above POW. These boys were class act in itself; they kept the canteen spotless even to polishing the stone floors with paraffin. They did all the chores willingly, they worked for nothing, but I slipped them a few cigarettes now and again. When they eventually left to go home to Germany, their families living in the Russian zone, they cried like babies.
Lt. Colonel FIC Wetherall was our CO and we were warned for CO’s inspection. On the day there was a flurry of activity all round making everything spick and span. Needless to say we passed with flying colours; all the “hooch” had been hidden and replaced with bottles of NAAFI issue beer (OR’s not being allowed to imbibe spirits in the canteen). After the inspection, the CO congratulated everybody and said; “I know that you’ve got the “hooch” hidden under the counter Corporal, but I would rather have the men tanked up here than in the town”; so that was that. Not quite! The RSM was present naturally and the canteen was dressed overall for a dance with the spare regimental flag in the centre and lines of out of action (red and yellow) flags. On the way out the RSM swung his pace stick at the flags and a puff of dust arose. Quick as a flash he turned and barked; “Dust the decorations”.
We had one dance a month and we had to import the girls from the nearby towns. This meant the mothers came as well to chaperone them and with them they brought their big shopping bags. Now, I wrote previously about dry rations. These were foodstuffs like flour; dried fruits, eggs etc and they went straight into the cookhouse. Army cooks can cook well when they have a mind to and they would produce a marvellous free buffet for these dances. This buffet was laid out in the canteen. At the interval, the mothers would descend on the buffet and it went straight into their shopping bags in double quick time. Nobody got to eat anything, not on the night anyway, but that was the price of the company of the girls who went home afterwards with their mothers.
Anna and Maria, the two girls who served in the canteen were locally employed from a long list of local girls seeking employment. Their pay was 1000 lira per month. If you compare that with the price of a pair of nylons, which was 1000 lira, it will give you some idea of their standard of living in those days. My two sisters at home both had American boyfriends so I had them send nylon stockings over and I presented them to the two girls, you can imagine how they felt. The other things at a premium were army blankets for winter coats. Both girls had new coats for the winter; where they got the material and how I didn’t ask. I struck up a friendship with the PRI clerk, L/Cpl Ian (Wrap-up) Parcell, a friendship that was destined to last although with a break of forty years while we got on with our lives. I still have contact with him and get to see him every so often.
By now it was well into autumn and we were back into battledress. I had just been promoted to the rank of W/S Corporal and this time I was paid for it. My pay was now 8/6 a day and to top it I was granted ten days leave. I half expected to return to find myself posted back to duty as had my predecessor, but not a bit of it. The PRI welcomed me back with open arms. It seems that my relief had not looked after the job as well as he should have done and I was back in command. I was also due for my third stripe but this meant that I would definitely have to return to the tank park so I turned it down. It would have been unpaid anyway and this was definitely a better job. It was in this vein that I spent Xmas 1946.
The New Year dawned and there was the smell of release in the air. The numbers of the groups now being released were not far in front of mine and we were all getting keyed up. We were the boys who had joined in 1942 and formed the bulk of the Army that fought in Normandy and there were a lot of us. Replacements (two year boys) were coming in steadily now and the atmosphere was changing. The comradeship was going and we were all getting itchy feet. Rumour had it that the Division were to be re-constituted as 1st Armoured Division (the charging Rhino) and the Regiment was to move to Palestine into a Divisional camp, a daunting prospect, I wanted none of it.
Gradually the lads who I had known, lived with and fought with, began to disappear, but eventually the day came when I got my pre-release papers and glory be, movement orders home. It was on parade for the last time and a farewell from the 2i/c. I was thanked for what I had done and asked to stay on which I declined to do. So it was back to Blighty and Worthing to be demobbed. There I was transferred to Class Z reserve and received my issue of civvy clothing in its square box. It was all over at last and I could pick up my life again, but I was no longer eighteen years old and it was going to be difficult, how difficult I was yet to learn. I was finally demobbed in May 1947, after service with the 4th, both in Germany and in Italy. Five years a tank trooper, five years which changed my life forever.