CHAPTER 7 – IN THE PIONEER CORPS
The Pioneer Corps training depot to which I was sent was in an old requisitioned cotton mill on the outskirts of Oldham in Lancashire. On the journey up from London I saw, for the first time, what the old industrial areas of the North of England looked like. Blake's reference to `dark satanic mills' sprang to mind. As the train wound through the outskirts of Manchester and on to Oldham, the landscape was of row upon row of back-to-back smoke-blackened terraced houses interspersed with huge, square, multi-storied cotton mills. There were tall factory chimneys belching smoke into the sky, railway sidings, pit heads and slag heaps. Everything was grey or blackened, and one could taste the soot in the air.
Not only was this my first sight of northern industrial England, it was my introduction to the British working class. As the son of a small businessman and an officer’s daughter, educated in prep schools and a public school my contact with the working class had been restricted to the few politically conscious workers I had met in the labour movement. I had carried in my head an idealised image of the working class, gleaned from marxist and socialist publications. Marx had proclaimed that the working class was the instrument of social progress. He had written that because of its position as the exploited class in capitalist society it was compelled to struggle to replace it with a new and better – socialist - society. Its experiences and struggles would force it to develop a socialist consciousness.
I was now going to have this theoretical view of the working class tested against real flesh and blood people. For the next five years I was going to live among the `ordinary' non-political workers in uniform. I was going to eat with them, sleep next to them, train, work and fight side by side with them, and be subjected to all the hardships and indignities of the life of the lowest of the low — a private soldier in the British army.
I would have to reconcile my idealised purely political image of the working class with my daily experience of these real people. The majority of my fellow soldiers were not political. During my five years in the army I came into contact with very few who were members of any political party. Few professed any interest in political theory. Overtly political discussions were rare unless I initiated them. That is not to say however that soldiers were politically neutral or that they had no political views. But their politics were not the result of the reading of political books or pamphlets; it stemmed from their own experiences and that of their families and communities and the conclusions they drew from these experiences were not always the ones I expected. I had fondly imagined that, at least, they would all be Labour supporters but I was shocked to find many who described themselves as Tory or Liberal voters. Outnumbering them were those who expressed no views at all or were contemptuous of all politicians. ‘They all piss in the same pot’, was a common expression
Of those who expressed any political views the majority were Labour supporters or socialists to one degree or another. The mood in the army reflected the attitude of the population in general. There was a basic class consciousness, a feeling of “us” and “them”, of basic working class and underdog solidarity. The officers were “them”, from a different class. They represented authority just as the managers and foremen did in civilian jobs. While one might have to accept this authority, obey orders and accept discipline (in the interests of self-preservation) it was seen mainly as an alien authority.
. There was general acceptance of the Labour Party’s support for the war effort. However as the war progressed a distinct politicisation and radicalisation developed in the army. There was a growing feeling that there should be no return to the bad old days of mass unemployment and a general disillusion with the old gang of Tory politicians. But I am getting ahead of my story. At the time that I joined, in 1941, the level of political interest among my fellow soldiers was low.
I could have, on the basis of my education and knowledge of languages tried, for a commission.. But I had joined the army as a socialist. I saw more opportunities of spreading my ideas among working class soldiers than among middle class officers. In any case it is doubtful, once my political sympathies became known, whether I would have got a commission. And when I was demobbed at the end of the war I chose not to go back to my old job with a firm of City chartered accountants but got a job on the factory floor in an engineering works to become a senior shopsteward and president of my union branch.
I and my fellow trotskyists were mistaken in our expectation of the war generating world wide socialist revolution. I can see now that our approach to people of other political persuasions was sectarian and dogmatic and that we were wrong on many things. We never became more than a small minority within the broad labour movement. The mass of the working class, in Britain and other countries, continued to support moderate and reformist parties. The swing to the left at the end of the war never went beyond support for a Labour government that did not abolish capitalism but merely reformed it, introducing the Welfare State. The socialist revolution is no nearer now than it was then. But I am proud that, as a middle class revolutionary socialist, I did not remain ensconced in comfortable positions but put my body where my mouth was, joined the working class and participated in its struggles. Despite many mistakes, I believe that we contributed to the general advance in conditions that were won by the labour movement in the aftermath of the war.
The training we received at the depot was pretty general throughout the army. We were taught to march in step, to do parade ground manoeuvres. We were bawled at by drill sergeants. ‘Left right, left right. Squad halt! Left turn! Right turn! Slope arms! Present arms! The most stupid order was ‘Squad halt! To the front salute! ’ On this order the marching squad would come to a smart halt and all raise their right hands in unison - to salute empty air! There was no officer there to salute!
The general idea was to turn us into automatons, conditioned to obey even the most stupid orders unthinkingly. Ideal cannon fodder. Only after we had acquired sufficient proficiency in parade ground drilling were we allowed to learn useful skills - how to fire rifles and throw grenades and take part in realistic manoeuvres. I enjoyed learning to shoot and was graded ‘first class’ with rifle and light machine gun. I found grenade throwing more traumatic. When told to throw a stone no one has any difficulty. Tell them to hold a live grenade and nearly everybody gets panicky. They are afraid they might drop it. I was always worried the man standing next to me in the trench might do so.
Then there was bayonet practice. On the order “Charge!” we were supposed to rush forward and jab our bayonets into straw dummies, giving blood-curling yells. This was supposed to frighten the enemy and, presumably, raise our blood lust. I could never get into the spirit of this, felt ridiculous and just didn’t yell. “Come on Ratner, let’s hear you! The Instructor Sergeant would shout “Come on, stick it in the bastard’s guts, he’s just raped your sister!” The object of the exercise was to imbue the recruits with hatred of the enemy. I don’t think it worked with many. (Perhaps they hadn’t any sisters!)
Showing due respect to officers, calling them ‘Sir!’, standing to attention when spoken to and saluting was rigidly enforced. One colonel, a Town Commandant, became notorious for his obsession. He issued a proclamation. Not only were soldiers failing to salute officers. They crossed on the other side of the street to avoid doing so. Officers, junior officers especially, were amiss in failing to acknowledge salutes or to put the soldiers on a charge for failing to salute. So that no officer could in future pretend he had not noticed a salute, the soldier must not only salute but loudly exclaim ‘Hi de Hi!’ The officer must return the salute, exclaiming ‘Ho de Ho!’ For long afterwards, when soldiers saw the Commandant approaching they would string themselves out in as long a line as possible and force him to repeat endless salutes and ‘Ho-de-Hos’. He became a figure of ridicule and widely known as Colonel Ho-de-Ho.
After completing training, most were posted to different operational companies. However, I was given a job on the permanent staff of the training depot as a clerk in the HQ offices. This was a really cushy number. Two of us shared the work, doing 24 hours on duty and 24 hours off. While on duty we slept in the depot office, and we were excused all parades and inspections. The work was easy in a nice warm office, and, on top of that, we had a full 24 hours free every other day. It was one of those cushy little numbers that every soldier dreams about. If I had not been a political activist, I would have cherished my luck and done my best to stay in that job for the duration. But I had gone into the army to carry out socialist propaganda and agitate and there was little scope for this in the depöt office. I requested to go on the next draft to an operational company.
This draft was sent to a company on fire-fighting and guard duties on the Avonmouth docks, near Bristol. They were being heavily bombed. There were large oil and petrol storage tanks and these were the bombers' main target. Many were set alight. Our job was to assist the Fire Brigades and the A.F.S (Auxiliary Fire Service). We had mainly to deal with incendiary bombs which were being dropped extensively. We had to do this with inadequate equipment and little training in fire-fighting and suffered some casualties.
We were billeted some distance from the docks, and marched down to them each day. Soldiers often sing when they are marching, and our company was no exception. One day I could hardly believe my ears. Instead of singing Tipperary or some other traditional favourite, the column struck up the Internationale! Unfortunately, this did not presage the start of the British revolution. The company was not on the verge of mutiny. Russia was now our ally and it was only natural that we should sing its `national anthem'. Besides it was a good tune! But I think there was more to it than that. It was an indication that the general mood in the army was beginning to swing to the left. Admiration for the Red Army's stubborn fight was bound to lead to the thought that there must be something worth defending in Soviet society, and that some of its features could, with advantage. be applied in Britain. Socialism came more and more to be seen as a feasible alternative to the present class society. Paradoxically, this also made my fellow soldiers less receptive to my Trotskyist criticisms of the Stalinist regime. The Communist Party was the main beneficiary because of its association with the Soviet Union. ‘Joe for King’ became a popular slogan.
After a spell on Avonmouth docks, we were moved to a large ammunition dump dug into hillside on the outskirts of Bath. We laboured day and night loading, unloading and stacking shells and bombs, grenades and mines in huge underground caverns. After a while I was posted to a company clearing up bomb damage in Plymouth after the heavy air raids. After that we went to erect Nissen huts in new army camps on Salisbury Plain. These were for the American troops pouring into Britain after America's entry into the war in December 1941.
The influx of tens of thousands of American troops was a culture shock for Britain, and particularly for the British Tommies. The great disparity in pay and conditions between the British and American soldiers caused resentment and tension. So did the competition for the available female company. The `Yanks' had a great advantage with their higher pay. The Tommies listened with envy to the girls enthusing over the nylon stockings (a rare luxury in wartime Britain) which their `Yankee' boyfriends were showering on them in return for a night out. The popular saying in the British army was that there were three things wrong with the Yanks: `They're over-paid; over-sexed and over here.' They were despised by many British soldiers for their unmilitary slovenliness, lack of toughness and for their dependence, even on active service, on the comforts of civilisation. It was said they could not fight if they did not receive their daily ration of Coca-Cola. The British soldiers' attitude was contradictory. On the one hand they hated the bullshit and barrack square drill to which they were subjected, the `standing to attention', saluting and addressing officers as `Sir'. On the other hand they looked with disdain on the Americans who could not march in step, slouched around with their hands in their pockets; and on their officers, who did not insist on smart salutes, and who allowed the other ranks to address them as 'buddy'.
Strict racial segregation was enforced in the wartime US army. Negroes were put into `all black' units. White and black soldiers were allowed out of camp only on alternate nights; whites on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; blacks on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Racism among the British people was not as rampant then as it has since become. On the whole, the black American soldiers did not meet much hostility from the British. In many towns the general opinion was that the blacks were often much better behaved than the whites, particularly in their approach to women. Women felt more at ease when in town on the evenings the black troops were there. They were seldom accosted or leered at by black soldiers, but they had to ward off the drunken and persistent attentions of white Americans. (I was later to find out that in liberated France, the loutish and drunken behaviour of the American `liberators' was contrasted unfavourably with the behaviour of the German occupation soldiers. These gave up their seats to women and elderly people on the buses and trains, and stepped off the pavements for them.)
I remember a small incident in Salisbury one Saturday afternoon. The segregation arrangements had broken down, and white and black Americans were in town at the same time. There was a big canteen and recreation centre run by the Salvation Army and when I walked in there were white Americans and British soldiers at the tea bar and seated at tables. Seeing two black soldiers standing on their own at the back of the hall I asked them whether they wanted a game of snooker. They looked hesitatingly at each other and muttered that they didn't know how to play snooker, only American pool. `Never mind', I said, `I'll show you how', and handed each of them a cue. They didn't know how to refuse. As we played, the place filled up with more Americans, and I became aware of hostile glares and comments from the white Americans. My two black friends became increasingly nervous. I think what deterred the Yanks from chucking out the two `uppity niggers' and the `nigger-lover' was the presence of a sizeable number of British tommies, including some commandos. I was determined to stick it out for the full time we had booked the table. When the game was over the two negroes refused my offer of a drink and left. As I sipped mine, one of the commandos asked me `Are you on your own?’ `Yes.’ `In that case stick with us. I wouldn’t trust those Yankee bastards not to knife you if you went out on your own.’