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A seasonal offering
3:26pm Wednesday 23rd December 2009 in Dennis Signy
I awoke at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day 65 years ago to the raucous background noise of the NCO at Meanee Barracks in Colchester shouting "Wakey, wakey".
A skinny and bemused teenager, I was somewhat traumatised by the fact that, four days before, I had left home for the first time at the invitation of King and country and neither my parents nor brother Larry woke up to wish me well as I stumbled into the cold dark morning at 7.30 a.m. en route to my call-up depot at Canterbury.
You may note that I set off for Canterbury for the Big Adventure. In fact, when I arrived at the depot there I found they were full up and any recruit with a name beginning with a P to Z was to be immediately transferred to Colchester.
I arrived at Meanee Barracks to be handed my first food of the day at "Lights Out" and I recall clearly sitting on my bunk in the dark munching a cheese sandwich and listening to a geezer from the Old Kent Road telling us dark tales about his mother and her various gentlemen friends.
The next day we were given duties in the barrack room - mine was keeping the coal bunker tidy. We never had a coal fire at home and a grammar school education had not encompassed tidying bunkers but I decided to give it my best shot.
Snag was that when I set about my task at the next "Wakey, wakey" call I found litter galore and sundry objects in the bunker ... and wet coal. My fellow squaddies, it seemed, did not relish going out into the cold to the toilet during the night so they relieved themselves in my bunker.
I was on a sharp learning curve that Christmas. On the first Sunday we were called out for a church parade. When we were in line, the sergeant major, complete with bristly moustache and high decibel tones, shouted: "Church of England one pace forward". Most of the parade moved ... and were quickly en route to church.
The sergeant major surveyed the motley remainder, narrowed his eyes and screamed: "Cafflicks one pace forward". A few more squaddies moved up. "***house duties", he told them ... and they marched off towards the toilets.
"Jews one pace forward", bellowed the sergeant major. "Potato peelings for you lads". Quick march to the kitchen.
There were three left standing. "What are you?" asked the man with the moustache. "Atheist", was the reply. The next? "Agnostic". And the last one --"Non-conformist".
The sergeant major licked his lips. "A - ffeeists, agnostic and non-whatever you said - clean up the parade ground". The next week I went to church!
Incidentally, my parents turned up at Colchester that weekend to take me out to tea. I don't know how they found that I was there - I didn't tell them I was moved from Canterbury. I've often meant to ask brother Larry if they got up to see him off when he later joined the RAF.
The Big Adventure took me from Colchester to Anglesey to Earl Fitzwilliam's estate at Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire - we were billeted in the stables there - and off to India for the next three Christmases. Hitler obviously got to hear that 14894617 Private Signy was on the case ... the war ended within months of my joining HM Force I wasn't your actual hero in khaki - but I did get stabbed in the hand during some riots in the Punjab. I wanted to shake this fellow's hand and he responded by sticking a knife in.
I won five bob - shillings to you moderns - by hitting the target with a hand grenade during training. I also disgraced myself as a sergeant in Egypt when I shouted "Eyes left" on parade ... and the general taking the salute was on the right. Then there was the day in Yorkshire when I went on parade without a bolt in my rifle.
I won't contest Peter Ustinov's suggestion that he was probably Britain's worst ever soldier -- but I was in the top 10!
When I completed my days in khaki in a village called Arnoldstein at the Austria - Italy border my job was frontier control. I did not speak a word of German or Italain so I mugged up two phrases: "Where have you come from?" and "Where are you going to?" and hoped for the best.
Generally people waved their passports at me so I could see at a glance. If anyone started rabbiting back at me, I would escort them from the train and take them to meet the bi-lingual local policeman whose name was Rudy. He was quite pleased at the number of attractive ladies who appeared in his office to be questioned and detained overnight.
This Christmas will be about family, turkey and Christmas pud. I've no doubt, though, that one or other of my delightful grandchildren will burst into the bedroom at the crack of dawn evoking memories of Colchester 1944 as they cry "Wakey, wakey".