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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Hetty Munro’s War Diaries (by Elizabeth Rintoul)

The following extracts from the War Diary of the late Henrietta Munro of Thurso come from the North Highland Archive and are published with their permission. Earlier extracts were published in Caithness Field Club Bulletins – Vol 6 No 8 (April 2004), Vol 7 No 1 (April 2005), Vol 7 No 2 (April 2006) and Vol 7 No3 (2007).   Hetty has now left her posting in Orkney. After a difficult journey she has arrived at Lichfield to commence training as a War Office Staff Secretary.

March and April 1942

For the first time I know what its like to be a soldier - after a DREADFUL journey, burdened with an unaccustomed kit bag, great coat, gas mask, battle bowler etc and loads of changes - cold, miserable and hungry, I arrived at Lichfield. Transport was late so the 20 A.T.S. N.C.O.s [Non Commissioned Officers] who had come off the train stood around the station and eyed each other in rather an uncertain, slightly hostile manner. The young officer who has come to meet us looks very nice and cheerful but at that particular moment, I’m so terrified, cold and nervous that I can only feel a deep and deadly hatred for everyone and everything in the world except a fire.

Soon an Army truck arrives, our luggage and us are all packed in and off we go to the Barracks. It’s about two and a half miles over a very bumpy road and as we’re all standing packed tightly in the lorry, I soon forget my cold feeling in endeavouring to subdue an intense desire to be sick. However all is well and the truck eventually arrives and deposits its burden.

By this time its 20.00 hours and nearly dark and we’ve to be checked, have an F.F.I. [Free From Infection - medical], get a meal, make our beds and unpack at least some things before lights out at 10.15. A Sergeant comes up and gives us a card marked “A” “B” “C” or “D” - mine is “B”. I look around and talk to some people near - they look rather pleasant. Damn! They’re none of them “B”. I bet that stuffy looking half dozen in the far corner are “B” though – it’s my female intuition I suppose but I’ve just been told to go and join them. The little dark one looks rather fun, though, and the odd looking fat child with the smallest snub nose one could imagine is obviously going to be the humorist of the hut by her remarks: I wonder who the fat Cockney mannish type is with the Eton crop? She and snub nose are passing witty back chat - might be more amusing than one expects.

At last my name is called and I step up to a table marked with a large “B” - name, rank, number (this always amuses me, because as I say “198”, I’m always accused of being rude and asked for my complete Army number - its takes me a little time to made people understand that 198 is my real, authentic complete Army number). My pay book is handed back to me and I’m directed into the next room where a Sergeant takes my pay book from me and tells me that Pay Parade is on Friday at 12.30 and I get no pay this week as my unit paid me two weeks before I left.

Through another door, I arrive at the ante room for the F.F.I. Here the Sgt. I/C [In Command] tells us to take off everything except shoes, pants and greatcoats. It’s so cold I don’t care what happens to me now if only I have some food and get to bed. Suddenly the door opens and another P.S.I. enters -last time I saw her she was a Private in Orkney. Nancy and I greet each other warmly - I discover she’s got “A” - which is probably just as well and we arrange to meet the next evening, A quick once over by the M.O. [ Medical Officer] and my F.F.I. [ Free From Infection] is finished and I’m free to dress, find Block B; grab my cutlery and go to the dining hut. By this time it’s quite dark and we stumble to the huts led by a P.S.I.

My first glimpse of a barrack room - very long high room with 21 beds, 21 lockers and 21 windows. Some of the girls have arrived early and have already made down their beds and unpacked. We grab our cutlery and rush out again into the night - again led by the P.S.I. The dining hall is a vast hut holding 300 people and my first real army meal is so very very good. Lots of hot stew and bread and butter pudding and - what I was after to discover was the eternal accompaniment to every meal - a huge mug of tea.

It was so late now that we were given 30 minutes grace for lights out to make our beds, wash and settle down. Amid a frightful din and with a frightful rush I managed to unroll my blankets and biscuits and try to make some semblance of order. It’s a very bad attempt at bed making and snub nose and the tall fair good looking Scots girl - who are my neighbours - come along and help me. “Come on Duchess” says Scottie and I come on. Funnily enough the name sticks and soon everyone calls “Duchess”. I don’t think they mind my appalling “funcelessness” and general inability to do things right - they just feel rather sorry for me! Lights go out and with much chat and laughter from everyone we settle down, thinking about the 06.30 call the next morning. Those biscuits are hard! [biscuit = type of mattress] I’m, sure I’ll never sleep at all.

Cold, tired and miserable I roll out of bed at 06.30, huddle into a dressing gown and go to wash in cold water - ugh! Stumble back to the barrack room and I’m given a filthy tasting bright purple gargle - everyone has this. Then I dress, polish buttons (I’ve never done that before either), make bed (again helped by the neighbours who manage to look clean and tidy and have their beds made in no time at all - why wasn’t I born a sensible useful girl?). At 7.45, we rush to the dining room, grab the food and eat it very quickly. Suddenly my neighbour gives me a dig and tells me to stop eating - O.O. has arrived. The only O.O. I know anything about is an Operations Order and I turn to say so when I hear a voice “Orderly Officer - any complaints’?! Of course there are none and immediately the noise starts again.

We rush madly back to the room, remove our jackets, brush the floor under our bed, dust our locker, bed rails and soldiers box, lay our spare pair of toes at dead centre on the locker top, get blankets and biscuits in mathematical exactitude in the middle of the bed, tin hat placed dead centre on top. Now a last polish of buttons and shoes and the Sergeant in command inspects us before C.O.s [Officer’s] parade at 08.30.

Now we are all standing easy, everything ship shape and Bristol fashion, not a wrinkle anywhere - surely no one can find anything? I think we’re pretty wonderful myself. “Stand at ease” “Shun!” The C.O. arrives - gives us “Stand at ease” and the P.S.I. calls the roll. “Platoon Shun” - and the inspection starts. Slowly the young pretty Sub, who took our names last night, moves around the room, noting everything. I do hope everything is all right - I want her to be pleased: this thought amazes me as it’s certainly not my usual reaction to this racket. Maybe I’m liking being a soldier? Very odd.

After it’s all over, the P.5. comes and tells us all our faults - of course, I can see them now. However, she’s very encouraging and is sure we’ll do better next time.

Lectures begin at 9 and we collect note books and pencils and go to “B” Syndicate room. Now we have a few spare moments - time enough to look around and try and focus on the blur of faces.
The tall fair Scottie and the smart dark gypsy looking girl have all the good looks in our bunch - they are both pleasant and amusing and will probably be popular. Snub nose has been christened “Tug Boat Annie” by the Eton cropped Cockney and “Tug Boat” she remains. She talks all the time, and takes off everyone with a biting cockney wit. The Eton crop tells me she was a cook before the war and is now a Signals Sergeant. She wanted to get out of the kitchen for a bit. There is a tall dark haired teleprinter operator with adenoids: a dark very thin rather Chinese looking girl who was in a dietetics branch of a hospital before the joined up.

Gradually the faces emerge and one learns names. One very small Lance Corporal was a Lyons Nippy. She has a very throaty, ugly voice and has only been in the A.T.S. for two months. She can think of nothing else and means to be a Sergeant in nine months! The child with the flat face and the flat feet and the awful nasal whine thinks, eats and sleeps Army; howls orders at us when drilling and is well on her way to being a Sgt. Major I’m sure. They’re all right really but thank goodness for Nancy.

The lectures go on until 11.00, when we break for a cup of tea at the N.A.A.F.I. [Navy Army Airforce Institute], or the Y.W.C.A. - the latter beautifully cosy with comfortable chairs and lovely food.
Afterwards 45 minutes on the barrack square - an enormous square surrounded by the dreary red brick stone buildings and at one end, high ornamental pillars with the Staffs badge in bronze on top. I hate it all. I’ve never liked marching and at the moment I feel as if I’ll never like walking again. Every day we do this and every day I hate it more.

More lectures in the afternoon and then finished at four. We rush for tea and come back to finish our unpacking. My soldier’s box holds very little really and everything must be stowed neatly and tidily in the locker as it’s got to be open for inspection if asked for. Now the fire is lit and there’s a general chatter, cleaning of buttons, making beds etc. By 19.30 we are all tidied and ready for dinner. After dinner I meet Nancy and her friend Brenda in the Y.W.C.A. and we discuss Orkney and its personalities until about 9.30 when I go back to the barrack room to prepare for bed.

Two or three days pass like this. I have to lecture for 10 minutes one day and I stand up and mumble drearily for about seven minutes on “Overseas A.T.S”. It’s very bad and I know it, but anyway its over which tends to make life more pleasant for the rest of the course. Everyone else is terribly good - especially the adenoid teleprint operator who describes her work most interestingly - Why can’t I do that?

On the Saturday night Nancy, Brenda and I go into the town and dine at “The George” - rather dull and food not very good but it’s a break and they seem to like it. Sunday is free after church parade - I spend it in Nancy’s room chatting while she gets her weekly rosters done. Later we go walking.

Monday evening the CO. sent for me - couldn’t imagine what crime I’d committed. But it’s to tell me I been selected to go to Brockenhurst and I’ve to report on Thursday!! Quite the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. I dance around, wire Mamma, Edinburgh, - telephone everyone I know, try to get 48 hours leave to get some clothes but there’s no time (there would have been if my silly C.O. had wired instead of written to Lichfield!); talk to Nancy, try to pack, get more and more muddled and excited and eventually give it all up and go to bed.

Tuesday I’m excused lectures as I have to go to the Town, telephone, be F.F.I’d, [Free From Infection - medical], given my papers, pack, wire Mamma a long list of things I want etc. In the evening I put up my A/Sgt. stripes so that I can go to a Sergeants dance with Nancy. It’s very dull but I don’t care - nothing matters just at the moment except that I’m going away and will NEVER come back here.

In the hut the girls are very sweet, make me sign autograph books, and say they’ll miss me – I’ll say they will, they’ve cleaned my buttons and made my bed and kept me on the right lines for five days- now they’ll get a rest. I really rather like them individually but taken in the mass, I can’t say I really like A.T.S. or anything else.

I get up very early, snatch a hurried breakfast, say goodbye - the C.O. comes to say goodbye and wish me luck which is very kind of her - and share a D.T.V. to the Station with a Sgt. and three privates - I later discover that one is A.W.L. [ Absent Without Leave] and being taken back to her Company in Chester.

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