The Aftermath by Les Harris, Air Mechanic (L) HMS. Vengeance
The gates clanged behind me and my troubled thoughts were regretting more and more the impulse that now had me wondering what lay in front of me....I didn't have to wait long.
A reception in the shape of a Gulliver sized Sergeant Major was there to greet me, his back and shoulders were forced so far back in the 'correct position' he reminded me of a question mark. A quick glance at the white painted building on my right and a rueful stare at the smoke blackened building in the front of me didn't endear me to my future home, temporary or not.
The 'question mark' strode swiftly toward me, how he managed to walk in that position has always remained a mystery to me...."Out....You....Out....grab your gear and double to the Office". I suppose he meant the building on the right, I'm sure as hell not going to ask him. My gear?, I'd forgotten about that, someone must have stowed it for me....I grabbed it, fell out of the jeep in my enforced eagerness and dropped the kitbag onto the deck, earning another rollicking from the rampant midget, who snapped at my heels as I struggled to the door of the Office. I wasn't dragging my tail behind me, it was just that my kit seemed to have a mind of its own, whilst it tried to get me a further earful, from my kind friend behind me. (If you have ever run with a heavy kitbag on one shoulder and a rolled hammock on the other shoulder, case in hand, with a Bull Terrier snapping at your heels....try it sometime). That was my first impression of Preston Jail.
I was relieved to reach the sanctuary of the Office. This was no sanctuary. The two P.O.'s sitting behind the desk looked positively angelic until one of them bawled, "Through there and change into your Tropical gear", indicated with a nod of his head, "NOW" he bawled. I staggered through the door, my thoughts as heavy as the gear I was carrying....What have I got myself into?....I was soon to find out....
"Right", I heard the same voice again, "Next room get your bloody hair cut". Don't these morons ever speak quietly?. The barber standing waiting for me was one of us, an inmate. "Don't scalp me mate", I pleaded. "Sorry mate if I don't scalp you they'll scalp me in a different way". He thought it was a great joke as he held the mirror behind me to view his handiwork. I didn't have to look through a mirror, the temperature around my head had fallen 20 degrees after the son of GERONIMO had finished with it.
Dressed in my Tropical gear the next process of degradation began. I was taken down two flights of iron stairs to my en-suite cell and I was home alone for the next three months. Through the solid iron door with a small peephole in the centre, was a barred window high enough to make sure you had a chance to study the stars providing the permanent rain clouds would allow it. On the right of the door was a wooden board two inches from the deck, just wide enough enough to hold a one inch seabed the only protection from severe lumbago. Pillows were a luxury you were not entitled to. Your own single blanket standing between you and frostbite. (no central heating). On the immediate left was a wooden table and stool, both screwed to the floor, self protection for the 'screws'?.... Facing you was the worst sight of all.....the dreaded 'slopping out' bucket. A degrading and nauseating routine suffered every morning before breakfast. I nearly forgot, on the wooden table was a Bible waiting for you to repent your sins. I read it a couple of times, but all that 'begatting' tended to confuse me a little.
The P.O. who had shown me to my luxury hotel room said, or should I say bellowed?, "Right....to the Captains Quarters for your welcoming speech". Standing stiffly to attention, I was given the low down on how I was a disgrace to the Navy ('sorry cocker, I reckon its the other way around, my only crime was for the love of my family and with a little more understanding from the Navy, you wouldn't have been pleased to make my acquaintance). The Captain still talked down to me as though I had crawled from under a stone. "You will obey the Officers at all times and address them as 'Sir'. This includes P.O.'s and above, you are not allowed to speak to anyone without permission, if you are caught doing so you will be severely dealt with". (they sure know how to make a person welcome). It took years to get out of the habit of talking from the side of my mouth. "Lights out at 20 hundred hours, if you are caught asleep before that time, you will answer directly to me". I found out very soon that falling asleep was not the problem, freezing to death was more likely to happen. "Wakey wakey is at 04 hundred, slop out at 04.15, cold water shower at 04.30, breakfast at 05.30. 06.30 two hours of tasks or galley duties, 09.00 two hours of Rifle Drill, 11.00 back to your cell, luncheon at 12 hundred hours". 'Luncheon?, get real', he meant two blobs of mash, a spoonful of mincemeat, a thimbleful of gravy and for afters, 'duff' as we called it, (a mixture resembling dumplings). To be fair, the food was reasonably good, but a bit sparse, especially for growing lads who were having their socks run off them. "13.30 hours you will have two hours of P.T., ending with a run around the perimeter of the buildings. The P.T.I. tells me it is nearly a mile long. I can still see the smirk on his face to this day. "Keep your nose clean and I am sure before you will leave us, you will have seen the error of your ways". "P.O.?", "Right turn, double march" the P.O. bellowed at me and I was rushed back to my cell. The time was 12 hundred hours (twelve o'clock) and it was time for my first meal in my new 'abode'. I had enough time to reflect on whether my obsession with my trips home were worth it and at that particular time, with what I had facing me, they definitely were not. Years later as certain events were to unfold, I am not so sure.
The key turning in the cell door interrupted my feelings of dejection and an inmate stood outside with a trolley full of goodies. A knife, fork and spoon was thrust into my hand by the P.O., standing beside him, followed by my predescribed luncheon, mug of tea sugared to their liking, found its way onto the table, well at least two thirds of it did, the rest went down the front of my white pants. The P.O. told me gleefully, "Get those pants cleaned up before breakfast tomorrow".
I was a 'rookie' in Preston Jail and I soon learned to dodge the deliberate tea spilling routine. If my memory serves me correctly there was a 'complaints' procedure, but it didn't go down too well with 'mighty atom' of a Sergeant Major, so I don't recall anyone using it.
The door was closed once again so I could savour the delights of my first meal in my new home. My compliments to the 'chef' wasn't the topmost thoughts on my mind. I was beginning to realise why we wore tropical gear and weren't allowed to shave. If anyone of us thought that escaping was a viable proposition and succeeded, can you imagine the spectacle of a man with a scraggly untrimmed beard and a thin tropical suit, legging it down the centre of Preston?....neither can I. The meal over and I had my first encounter with the P.T.I. He spent a couple of hours teaching us how not to make friends and influence people. (it wasn't too bad for me, I had inflicted far tougher training on myself in my amateur boxing days) It knocked hell out of many of my fellow sufferers, I remember one very unfit member of the Navy's, Writer Branch nearly collapsing on the final mile perimeter lap. It frightened the life out of the P.T.I. but he still made him finish the lap by walking it....we were locked back in our cells, sweating, no shower and cursing the P.T.I. and the mother who bore him. All part of the Navy's degradation programme to make us all swear that we would never return....it worked too.
Tea arrived at 4 o'clock consisting of a thick slice of bread, a blob of butter and a blob of jam and let us not forget the world famous 'pussers kai' (cocoa to you) and not a nutrition expert in sight. Sleep was hard to come by that night, my thoughts and the rock solid bed, my feet freezing because I didn't assume the 'foetal' position they went beyond the confines of my blanket and turning over was a major health hazard.
Four A.M. wakey, wakey arrived and the dreaded slopping out routine began. We all lined up carrying our uncovered steel toilets in our hands, the stench overpowering, trying hard to keep away from the pots in front and behind. I hadn't used mine in the ultimate degrading position....squatting over a small hole hoping that your direction was correct, if not the disgusting act of cleaning up was ever in your thoughts....that was yet to come....I couldn't put it off forever....the line moved on until it was my turn to reach the end....a three foot square concrete open sewer. I emptied my small donation and waited in line to swill my portable toilet under the tap next to the sewer. If you were splashed by the contents of the previous user of the tap, that was just your hard luck.
The daily monotonous routine carried on without respite. The wire mesh stretched between floors was a necessity to prevent suicide attempts, but not for me, anger was a safe-guard. Weekend arrived and I had been forced to use the disgusting squatting position many times and the daily trip to empty them seemed to get worse on every visit....on one of my many post-war trips to Moslem countries, I was forced to assume that position again, because the single Western type toilet was too filthy to use. It brought back too many unpleasant memories for my peace of mind.
I welcomed Saturday morning as I became an old 'LAG' because I had kitchen duty, which meant I could nick a raw onion and hide it under my armpit to eat with my jam 'butty' at 4 o'clock. I was always on the alert, dreading the cell door opening and the smell of raw onion leading me back to the waiting arms of our 'Captain Blyth', so why did I do it?. Because I was bloody hungry that's why.
From midday Saturday until 04.00hrs. Sunday we were banged up in our cells with only the evening meal to break the monotony, unless you felt religious, then you could curl up with the Bible. Sunday had a major attraction, after Church Parade we had the choice of choosing a book to read. It sounds fantastic doesn't it?. Two trestle tables piled high with books and the time it takes to go from one end to the other to choose one. I read more romantic novels in my three months in jail than in the rest of my life. If you didn't pick one you didn't get one. Then until 04.00hrs. Monday, banged up again. Because we lived one man per cell we were literally in permanent solitary confinement.
One of my fellow sufferers spent all of his sentence in a real solitary confinement cell. During one of the Sunday morning prayer sessions (the most popular prayer was 'Lord how do we get out of this dump?') a very big sailor, a 'brummy' according to his accent, decided that he had had enough of the degradation programme by belting an unpopular P.O. in the mouth, for which we all gave him encouragement and asked him to do it again, (well....after all, they couldn't make our lives much worse than they already were) so he obliged us before he was bundled into a 'straight jacket' and manhandled into his future abode. He was virtually a permanent fixture in the straight jacket, each time he was released from it he attacked the first available 'screw'. We never knew whether he was going mental or trying to work his ticket, either way it was pretty rough on him. Maybe he was crazy because I had to clear the solitary confinement cell out after he had removes a single course of brick from the bottom of the cell with a spoon, the only feeding utensil he was allowed.
I was so cold one night that I had to sit on my bed with my blanket over my head and my back against the cell wall, the door suddenly opened and the P.O. (a nasty piece of work everyone detested) accused me of being sleep before lights out. This was a ridiculous accusation considering the temperature. My denials were ignored and I found myself facing 'Captain Blyth' the next morning. I wasn't asleep and no one on this planet short of hanging me from the yardarm would have made me say I was. "Very well then because you have behaved yourself so far (I was mentally sticking two fingers up at him, thinking of all the onions I had nicked) I will only take your bed off you for three days....see that this is complied with P.O.".
I was allowed a compassionate visit from a repatriated soldier uncle of mine, accompanied by my Father and Grandfather, I didn't realise at the time that I had been munching a bar of chocolate and biting into a meat sandwich at the same time. A fact related to me after the War. This little bit of home comfort was courtesy of a decent P.O. who hated his time in Preston as much as the inmates.
The time came for my release and the jeep arrived to take me back to camp. I had a shave, the first in three months, I dressed in my blues and as I went through the gates I never looked back but I made a silent vow that I would never return to a place that deliberately went out of it's way to dehumanise young men for offences that never warranted this kind of punishment. The men dishing it out seemed to enjoy it too much for my taste.
Two weeks later I was on the move again to a foreign drafting station in Scotland and a week later I was on an Aircraft Carrier. I was destined not to see my family for two years....it didn't take the Navy long to wreak retribution.....