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< Echoes of Memory

British Army

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By Alfred Traum

The volunteer office provided me a ticket to Amsterdam, and from there I made my way by train and ferry back to England. As I approached the immigration booth, I wondered how it would go. I had been technically AWOL (absent without leave) from the British Army for 18 months.* The agent took my passport, shuffled some papers, and said, “Well, well, lookie here. Did you know you are wanted by the army?” I answered, “Yes, that’s why I am here.” “Well good, mind you report to your local police station when you get home.” With that, he stamped my passport, returning it to me and cheerfully said, “Welcome home, son.” That sounded good to my ears. I thought, one hurdle gone, but several still lay ahead. 

I spent a wonderful weekend at home with family and friends, but first thing Monday morning, I went to the local police station. I was not surprised that they had a file on me. After all, they had been to my home three times looking for me and finally ceased coming after my sister told them that I was in Israel. Once again, I was told to go home, and in due course I would be notified as to where and when to report. 

About two weeks later I received my orders—a travel voucher with detailed instruction for my travel plan. I was to report to Catterrick Garrison in Yorkshire.  At the appointed time, I arrived at Darlington rail station. I was not alone. There must have been at least 100 other guys like myself there. A motley looking group. An army sergeant approached us informing us that we are at intake, we were being processed into the service, and told us to climb aboard the bus that will take us to Catterick Camp. Once within the campsite, we were ushered into a large warehouse. The sergeant began, “You will see tables with all of your pay books arranged in alphabetical order. I want you to remember, your pay book is the most important document you will have during your entire army service, so take good care of it. Once you have your pay book, go to the far end of the warehouse. You will notice a row of kiosks spreading all the way across the length of the warehouse. As you move from left to right you will receive all your army issue uniforms and other items to fill your kitbag.” I walked along to where I thought my pay book should be, but instead there was a note with my name on it saying “see Adjutant.” I took the note and showed it to the sergeant: “Oh, so you decided to come home, eh!” He spoke loud enough for heads to turn in my direction, wondering what this might be about. Then addressing me he said, “Since you haven’t got your pay book, I had better go with you so you can draw your kit.” I wondered just how much he knew about me and followed him in silence. 

After we had drawn our kits, we were taken to our barracks. Very primitive quarters. I was told they had been condemned after the first world war, but they were still in use. There was just one small pot bellied stove to provide heat for the whole barrack. Those getting there first grabbed the beds closest to the stove. Since I was delayed in drawing my kit, I was one of the last to enter and found a bed at the far end of the barrack. A small group of fellows welcomed me. They were all public school boys from the upper crust of society. Not the ones I normally associated with, but they were friendly and anxious to hear what prompted the sergeant's words to me. So as quickly as I could, I told about my whole escapade. 

The following morning right after breakfast, the sergeant came to collect me. I must have looked a mess, dressed in a badly fitting uniform, new stiff army boots making it almost impossible to walk. The sergeant knocked and entered, saluting, smartly stamping and announcing “Trooper Traum reporting SAHH.” The adjutant, a captain, thanked the sergeant and asked him to wait outside. The captain motioned for me to sit down while he rose and began to slowly pace in front of me. He began in an icy voice, “If I thought for a minute that you were attempting to evade your service, I’d throw the book at you and you would do two years at Colchester [military prison] and then complete your national service. But you are here now, and I know this is not the case with you. I respect what you did, so I’m going to wipe the slate clean and you will just do your normal service along with your intake.” He then sat down and in a normal conversational voice began, “I don't know if you are aware that this regiment, the 17th/21st Lancers, was one of the last regiments to leave Palestine, er Israel, before returning to the UK.” He then asked me if I had been to Haifa. I told him that I had. He then asked me if the refinery appears to have been damaged in war. I told him that from my observation, it did not look to have suffered any damage. He then raised his head and called the sergeant saying, “Please have trooper Traum rejoin his intake and that will be all.” We saluted, made an about turn, and headed back to my barrack. I thought to myself that it had gone  pretty well. Not a bad start. My newly found friends were glad that I would remain with them. 

Several nights later when we were all resting, there was a noise outside our barrack. In a voice that had become quite familiar to us, it was our drill sergeant calling for me to come out. I thought he was going to knock my head off; however, he didn’t even touch me. He vented his anger and then left. He had apparently lost one of his close friends to a Jewish terror group. 

In truth there were several paramilitary groups, most notably the Irgun and the Stern group, that had conducted actions against the British troops when attempting to rescue some new arrivals off various  vessels. The vessels had been beached attempting to bring in those having fortunatly survived Nazi concentration camps and displaced persons camps. They were finally in sight of Israel and freedom only to be transferred onto a British ship that would ferry them to be detained. That was a hard pill to swallow and led to confrontations between the British army and the Jewish paramilitary groups. I could well understand our drill sergeant’s feelings who had the unpleasant task of carrying out British policy. 

Several days later, as we were marched to breakfast, our sergeant came alongside me and told me that he had heard about my encounter with the drill sergeant and asked whether I wanted to report the incident. I laughed and said, “I would sooner forget about it.” He replied, “I'll let it pass this time.” Several moments later he was at my side again, saying, “if this occurs again, whether you want it or not, I will report this unacceptable behavior in the British Army.” I was quite amazed and felt proud that such a high moral code was practiced. 

The three months of basic training went by quickly and a passing out parade was conducted. The colonel reviewed us and that was the last activity at this camp. Back in the barrack our sergeant held up some papers and announced, “These are your evaluation papers, as I call your name, come and get it. I want you to read it, sign it, and place it here on my desk. This is not a question if you agree with it or not, it simply states that you had the opportunity to see it.” I was pleased that mine was quite complimentary and did not mention a word of my 18 month AWOL. 

Most of us were to be transferred to regiments stationed in Germany. One of my friends, who was more familiar with my personal history asked, “how do you feel about going to Germany?” I had the answer ready for him, “I have no problem with that, as long as I am there in the capacity of the VICTOR and not a VICTIM.”

* For background on Alfred Traum and the time he was “AWOL,” read “Britain’s Response.” In 1948, he left Great Britain to volunteer for Israel’s War of Independence. 

Tags:   alfred traumechoes of memory, volume 13

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