Don Fathers' wartime army life

Working on the searchlight guns

By Nicola Benge

Photo:Army medical record

Army medical record

Photo from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

On 'Jankers'

In the War, when I was stationed at Braintree in Essex, I remember being on jankers. 'Jankers' is slang for when we were on punishment...I forget what I did... I think I'd done something like letting light seep under a door in the blackout, you know? There was an officer who didn't like my mate Pat Shepherd and me at all... because we were always up for a laugh, always having fun. So he said:

"I've got you at last!"

Anyway. There we were, on 'jankers', helping the coalman to lug coal up to the Yankee camp. And this officer there says to us,

"Have you eaten?"

We said "No," of course... and he pointed to a canteen, said:

"In there. Eat as much as you like, but don't leave anything."

Well, there was food. Food. Pork chops. Sugar. Cigarettes. We didn't see sugar often, really. "Eat as much as you like," he said. So we did. Wonderful.

Oh, but their toilets! Like a big open room, with toilets all round the walls. No divisions. There must have been surges of homosexuality, I reckon. I had to use that place, but luckily, only the once.

Another thing we had to do, on Jankers, was 'jankers in the cookhouse'. That was the best thing to do if you were on report. Spud bashing! Wonderful. They used to give you a sack of spuds and a bowl of water, and you just peeled them and chucked the peeled ones into the bowl.

I did try it on, mind. "I can't do your spuds, sir" I said "I'm left handed."

And would you believe it, he just gave me a left handed potato peeler...!!

Piles and piles

But I also remember, when I was at Oldham - oh, we got sent everywhere - I was on a radio location course, a radar course, and I had haemorrhoids. So I went to the MO, and I said, "I think I've got piles." So he said he'd take a look. Anyway. He sent me to Davy Hulme Hospital in Oldham, for the following Monday, for an operation.

The MO there said: "Yes? Name and number?"

So I gave them, and then he said, "You aren't expected until NEXT Monday."

I tell you, I didn't bother after that. The piles cured themselves.

No escape

Even before the War, I remember we were on a week's camp in Braintree, Essex. We were mucking about in a field, doing handstands. You know, one chap would kneel down, and the other would do a handstand over him? Well, this big bloke was doing his handstand, and he collapsed on me. Broke my shoulder!

That time, I was sent to Colchester Military Hospital. There was this little short sergeant major, and he said "There's a bed. Get in. What's wrong with you, then?"

There was this big fat Sister too. God!

And every morning, one volunteer got up early to make 'Gunfire'... a bucket of tea! It was in a bucket with a spout. Loads of tea, hot water, milk and sugar, if there was any.  And this fat Sister, one day she poured the whole lot down the drain. Didn't hold with early morning tea.

And this officer MO came round and he was a short, ginger haired man. You had to sit up straight on your bed and take your shirt off.

"You are the guy who wants to go home, hey?" he said... and when he'd gone, the fat sister said, "Why are you sitting there? This isn't a holiday camp, you know."

I had my arm in a sling! "I can't get my shirt back on easily," I said.

"Well, when you have, you can sweep the ward," she said.

So I had to do the sweeping... this huge ward. One-handed! That was Colchester for you.

On manoeuvres

There were different jobs on the teams... there was the man who looked after the searchlights (two carbon rods pushed in a graphite tube, so the ends arched when they got close). I was Number 4. My job was to be at the end of the searchlight arm, work the wheel, and spin the arm round, running with it.

There were two spotters, who stood away from the light and spotted planes. They had to learn the silhouettes. They'd shout, and we'd move the searchlight right, left, up down, and get it on target.... Then the gunners would shoot them down. But of course, they had a target too. Us. They fired down the beam of light! We were all fired at, but didn't really notice at the time.

One guy got himself killed on a searchlight site. But in my unit, ten sites... about 100 men, there weren't a lot killed. We were spread out. Round the edges, really.

Talk about weapons! We had one rifle between ten. And we all had pick helves. Pick handles, that is. They were for 'harassing the enemy if they landed'. Honestly! Fat lot of good they'd have been, I can tell you.

This page was added by Nicola Benge on 16/01/2008.
Comments about this page

Don Fathers is my Uncle,how lovely to see his war-time memoirs on line for all to see. He is still jiving at 89 and has more energy than any of his dancing partners that are half his age! Keep it up Uncle D! xxx

By anne thomas
On 26/11/2009

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