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2. Waiting in a dark hangar, laden down with painful backpacks

From the Derby Telegraph, Tuesday 26 May 2009 www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk

Together with his rifle, ammunition packs and water bottle, RAF Sergeant Charles Barton Mann always carried a pen and a few sheets of A4 paper at his side. Sgt mann, who lived and worked in Derby before the war, pledged to keep a detailed diary of his experiences on the journey from his Lancashire barracks to India. Here are the first pages from his fascinating diary, chronicling the journey he made with hundreds of other men to distant, war-torn lands.

OF COURSE, we paraded hours too early – the RAF always did things that way. Kitbags bearing two blue rings were dumped on the floor of the gloomy hangar, cavern-like as we approached it in the slateyness of the Lancashire early morning.

At first we kept on our packs and we stood in threes, joking. The flight sergeant in charge of the draft sorted us according to the code numbers, so newly and neatly stencilled on our kitbags.

The packs on our backs began to strain the shoulder muscles. Somebody said: "Lady Astor is supposed to have designed these packs. She won't be made to wear one of them for 24 hours a day, will she?"

A movement in the ranks ahead. Orders shouted from the front of the lines, boomed in the roof of the hangar and were lost in hollow echoing. The line shuffled forward and came to a halt again.

The airmen waited. There was no further movement as minutes passed. The kitbags with the two blue carry rings and neatly stencilled numbers were grounded again.

That pain across the shoulder blades returned. I bent forward for relief. The minutes ticked off. The flight sergeant had disappeared. One by one packs were slipped off again, though some optimists expecting a move any minute retained them.

The air in the hangar became heavy with cigarette smoke which moved slowly to the open end, where it gathered speed and swirled with the morning air to a lighter shade of grey.

"Why the hell have they got to parade us so early every blasted time?" asked Shales. It was a statement rather than a question.

Young McConnell, adaptable to any conditions, had fished out a pack of cards. McConnell, Sergeant Maddock, Nash and Hugo squatted on their kitbags and began the game which was their local anaesthetic.

With it, given the slightest opportunity, they always numbed themselves against the nagging boredom of service life.

More drafts arrived like well-trained sheepdogs. Now and again, the flight sergeant would weave through the massing ranks, checking numbers and worrying himself into an increasing state of instability.

Few of the men now stood – few could withstand the torture of it as the minutes dragged into an hour, an hour into two.

Suddenly, the drone of airmen's talk took on a lighter pitch. Men near the entrance were jumping to their feet and helping each other up. It was coincident with the appearance of a PDC corporal.

"Come on, get those packs on, get into three ranks. Break it off there. And get moving!" he shouted.

"Just my luck," cried Mac as the cards were swept up. "Naff all I've had and now they start moving."

Orders were filling the smoke. "In threes, come off there," snapped the corporal. "Threes, I said! In three ranks!"

Along the ranks he went again, making his final check before his "Ok, flight" to the harassed flight sergeant.

Lorries were now arriving at the hangar doors and into them the airmen, hauling, carrying, dragging, coaxing, pushing their kitbags. Slowly, our line went forward to take its turn.

The lorry drew up in front of us and in we climbed. The pack of the man in front punched in your face or chest, you dodged a jab from the rifle slung over his shoulder and were cursed from behind by the man who received the weight of your pack and narrowly avoided having his eye knocked out by your weapon.

With a lurch which sent us into a tangled heap of webbing, guns and kitbags, the lorry was away.

We were at the station two hours before the train was due to leave. The morning was cold but, in great coats and those unacceptable packs, we sweated.

A steam rose from the ranks, but we had been livened by the move from the hangar and our outlook on the organisation was growing philosophical.

Civilians catching a train on the opposite platform waved to us – we waved and shouted back. We whistled at the girls, some swirled and waved, others grew red and embarrassed and dived into their carriages for sanctuary.

"Get up them stairs" was the popular by-word of the moment and the prettier the girl, the louder it was shouted and with a feeling commensurate with the shortness of skirt and shapeliness of leg.

Their train went and we gave them a cheer and felt bashfully heroic as the handkerchiefs fluttered at windows and motherly women cried, "Good luck boys – it won't be for long."

The station seemed empty when the train had gone. My pack hung heavily and there was a dull pain at the base of my neck.

A group of officers strolled along the platform and consulted a bespectacled man with a stoop and the look of an ex-railway clerk stamped plainly in every inch of him.

One of the officers, a downey faced youth, remarked loudly, "Plenty of time for a cup of coffee, chaps."

To those of us who had been waiting hours without refreshment, this seemed like kicking a dumb animal and from the anonymity of the rear ranks there were pointed and un-airman-like remarks.

The young officer glared but, faced with the bleak stares of four hundred men, reddened and walked quickly away, his companions following.

Eventually, the train came and we crushed uncomfortably into the dusty carriages. By the time we moved off, the windows of the carriages, in which were crammed eight men with full packs and kit, were steamed up.

Each man of this modern force, as encumbered as any knight of old, waited for somebody else to struggle up and open the window.

At length I could bear the steamy atmosphere no longer, so I heaved to my feet, made no apology as my backpack with steel helmet lashed to it swung viciously close to the faces of those adjoining, and pulled the leather window strap to let in the sweet, cold air.

Then I shuffled between the others back to my seat, which meanwhile had dwindled to a negligible square of dusty plush. I plumped down heavily and worked myself into a more or less bearable position in spite of the protests of others on that side of the compartment.

Source article: http://www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk/news/Waiting-dark-hangar-laden-painful-backpacks/article-1019869-detail/article.html

Next: 3. This is it, we've had it now, we thought as we saw our ship