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Pull Up A Sandbag
Sandbag Reminiscences of Bob Davies Sandbag
A Day In The Life...
On the 6th May 1959 I left home and joined the Army. I was a naive, shy, skinny 15 year old, and though I lived in a pub, didn't smoke or swear – and certainly didn't drink! I lived in a little pub called the Shoulder of Mutton in a small West Riding (now West Yorkshire) mill town called Holmfirth, just 6 short miles from Huddersfield. Holmfirth is now famous for the (very) long running BBC comedy 'Last of the Summer Wine'. Then it was famous for ......... nothing! I remember walking out of the Shoulder, with Mum standing at the window holding my 1 year old sister in her arms. Do you know something? I can't remember where Dad was and can't remember saying goodbye, either to him or to Gran! Mum stood at the window and watched me walk up Victoria Street. At the top, I stopped and waved goodbye. I then crossed over the main road and got on a bus for Huddersfield. What followed was a most unbelievable two years, probably the best two years of my life – certainly the best of my formative years.
I was bound for The All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment, Tonfanau Camp, Nr. Towyn, Merionethshire, North Wales. When I left home I was wearing a second-hand brown tweed jacket and long grey trousers, and carried a very small, black plastic holdall with next to nothing in it. I had an Army Travel Warrant and must also have had a shilling or two in my pocket, but I can't remember how much.
At Huddersfield, I went to the railway station and changed my Travel Warrant for a ticket, and got on a train. There was a boy about my age in the compartment and after a while we spoke to each other. We were surprised to learn that we were going to the same place. What a coincidence! His name, like mine, was Robert (and like me, from a little later that day and for ever more, was to be a Bob). He was Robert Bradley and he came from a place called Silsden, also in the West Riding. As it turned out, like me, Robert had also joined the 9th Queens Royal Lancers (we had obviously met the same Recruiting Sergeant!)
The train called at places I had heard of like Stalybridge and Stockport, but as it got further afield, other towns appeared which I had never heard of. Places like Crewe, Shrewsbury, Welshpool, Newtown. Then the place names got even stranger - Caersws, Cemmaes Road, Machynlleth, Aberdovey and Towyn. And finally, in the late afternoon, the train pulled up at the very edge of the known world – or in our collective case – the unknown world: Tonfanau Halt.
During the journey, apart from all the new and unusual names, another strange thing happened. At all the larger stations along the way, more and more boys of our age got on the train! There didn't seem to be any adults on the train at all. It got more and more crowded, and more and more noisy, and we all got more and more excited as we all began to realise that we were all heading for the same place! All the boys were aged between 15 and 17 and they were all shapes and sizes and there was a total confusion of accents. Some I understood and some I struggled with – but in all of them I was able to pick out the swear words! I was overwhelmed with it all and as well as being excited by it, I was a little nervous too. I knew I was going to a new Unit but I didn't realise that it was so new that everyone was starting on the same day!
As we got to Aberdovey and then Towyn, we were right on the coast, overlooking Cardigan Bay - and it looked terrific. Not long after Towyn, still on the coast, we crossed a much loved Bailey bridge – although we didn't know that at the time – and rolled to a stop at Tonfanau Halt. What an overwhelming scene this was too. There were no railway buildings at the Halt other than the platform itself, but the platform and adjacent road was crowded with scores of soldiers in uniform, and lots of Army vehicles on the roadway. They were all waiting for us. It was an incredible scene. The camp nestled under Beacon Hill and the gates were directly across the road from the Halt and from what we could see the camp covered a very large area.
The first soldier I noticed was a Captain, in full uniform, but wearing a Parsons' dog collar - and a tremendous, ear to ear smile. I later found out that he was the Regimental Church of England Padre, a wonderful Irishman.
Two other soldiers I immediately noticed. One of them was a large, moustachioed bear of a man, wearing Sergeants stripes and a bright red sash. He was Sergeant Hopkins and who, I was pleased to learn, was to be one of the Troop Sergeants in our new Company. (We were all – the lads in D Company anyway – to meet Sgt Hopkins the very next morning – very early the very next morning! – when he came banging and clattering in to our barrack rooms. He was shouting and bawling and had the most memorable line which went something like – "Come on boys - get out of bed - THE QUEEN NEEDS YOU". Now he himself must have lain in bed for nights on end thinking up that line. It was truly wonderful.)The other soldier I noticed at the Halt was an imposing looking Sergeant Major. He was carrying a silver topped cane, was quite heavily built, with striking silver white hair. He was Sergeant Major Sanderson, and again, I was pleased to find out, he was our Company Sergeant Major. He was in the Leicestershire Regiment. Much later I learned that he had been on the infamous Burma Railway during the war and it was that experience which had turned his hair white!
We were all herded (literally) on to 3 ton trucks and driven into camp - and were soon to find out that the Regiment may have been new, but the camp certainly wasn't! It had been closed down for years, but had then been brought back to life, especially for our new All Arms Regiment. Quite a lot of the buildings were old timber huts and they were in and amongst newer – but not new, brick blocks – and several enormous hangers (which soon featured quite a lot in our young lives). The next few days blurred into each other but we were all assigned to different Troops and Companies.
It didn't mean anything to me at the time, but I was assigned to Cambrai Troop in 'D' Company. Cambrai Troop had 25 boys in it (the Webmaster has been good enough to publish a photograph of the Troop on the AAJLR website. I have been able to name every boy in the Troop – bar one – (with the help of one John (Jock) Robertson) and can even remember where most of them came from). We were split in to two adjacent wooden barrack rooms.
Our Troop Leader was Lieutenant Ecclestone, 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, and Sgt. Faint, East Anglia Regiment was the Troop Sergeant. (After several weeks he was replaced by Sgt Ramsey – also of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment.) Lt. Ecclestone was a very well spoken man from Great Yarmouth and he had a beautiful collie dog which looked just like Lassie – and he drove a pale green Morris Minor car. (What obscure things you do remember.)
Although we were all aged between 15 and 17, I have to say that the 17-year-olds seemed to me to be light years ahead of we younger ones. I suppose two years is quite a gap at that age. It seemed so to me, anyway. A few of the lads had been in the Army Cadets too and they were streets ahead of us in those first few weeks. Within a couple of days though we got to know each other pretty well and in the whole time we were together I cannot recall any personality clashes and considering that we were all so closely confined, I think that was quite remarkable.
We very soon got our nicknames, or whatever, sorted out too. It wasn't a case of sitting around in a big circle discussing who would be called what, though. It just happened - and while most were totally unoriginal and others may be considered a bit cruel, they all stuck. There were 3 Jocks (although one was a Tom and another a Tommy), a Scouse, 2 Lofty's, Titch, Curly, Jumbo, Lurch, Cyril, 2 Johnnies - and several other proper names or shortened Christian and Surnames.
Within a matter of hours – or so it seemed – we had all been issued with ancient (but brand new – if that's not a contradiction) oversized jackets, trousers, shirts, boots, brown plimsolls – soon to be Kiwi black - belts, braces, hats, underwear, mess tins, a strange felt covered water bottle, and a HOUSEWIFE! and many other assorted items – along with a bewildering mass of webbing equipment on which were hundreds of rough, pitted brass buckles – all in need of hours of loving attention!
And very soon, probably the next day, we were introduced to the most fearsome Drill Sergeant. He was Sgt. Conner of the Irish Hussars. He was stockily built but could move his feet in a blur – and had a voice which could shatter crystal. He had every single one of us shaking in our oversized – over weight – over stiff - all over the place – black pimpled leather boots. He was such a fearsome man. However, on one occasion I think I'd caught a glimmer of human kindness in his eye – but very quickly realized that I was wrong and it was merely the sun glinting off his cap badge. I was even fooled once in to thinking I had seen him smile – and then realized it must have been a touch of wind. What a man. I guess now some people would say that he was better for knowing – but we just knew him to shiver and quake at.
What a life we were all embarking on. The introduction to Army life was pretty awesome. Any of the hundreds and hundreds of lads who have passed through Tonfanau and who have ever seen the television programme Bad Lads Army will instantly be transported back there. There were so many ups and downs along the way – but I learned so much – and wouldn't have missed any of it for the world. On the first day there I was the naive, shy, skinny lad from Holmfirth – and in the blink of an eye I was to be the very first Junior Regimental Sergeant Major of the All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment, Tonfanau.
I have such wonderful, fond memories of the place, of events, and of people. I feel privileged to have been there – and feel as though I could write a book about that short but eventful period of my life. It was truly fantastic.

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