The Thurlows

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Growing up with the infantry

Another event that was to play a large part in my wartime memories was the arrival of the next army unit to be stationed in Little Thurlow. This was a platoon of the London Irish Rifles, an infantry battalion which formed part of the 56 London Division (Black Cat). The troops were billeted in Mungo Lodge, the Mill House and The Old Mill; the cookhouse and dining hall were in the old tin hut.

This unit was the Carrier platoon and it was equipped with Bren Gun Carriers, a tracked open-topped armoured vehicle that carried a crew of three (driver, machine gunner and wireless operator). It was powered by a Ford V8 engine and was used as a support unit for the infantry. The soldiers were a good crowd and very friendly, so we soon had our favourites. Mine was Alfie Bowler, a driver. I used to take home any sewing and socks that Alfie needed darning and my mother, bless her, would do them for me. In return, Alfie would tell me when he was going to take his carrier down to the river to wash it down. This was at the ford near the Church before the bridge was altered. This took place mostly on Saturday mornings, ready for the CO’s inspection on Mondays.

There would be several more carriers being washed down at the same time. When they had all gone back to Mungo Lodge, Alfie would say, "Okay John, hop in", and would let me drive the carrier backwards and forwards through the river, turning round at Church Farm and then at the entrance to the church. I shall always remember this treat, as I was only 11 at the time.

The carriers all had names with an Irish theme, which were painted on the front armour-plating,. Some that I can recall are Danny Boy, Molly Malone, Rose of Tralee, Brian Boru, Phil the Fluter Mountains of Mourne and Mother McCree. I cannot remember the exact number of carriers, but it was either ten or twelve. They were parked around the outside of the Mill meadow, some under the plantation trees, and they were covered with camouflage netting.

During the winter months, when they came out on to the road the tracks brought out a lot of earth and grass from the meadow on to The Street, and when we had heavy rain the road became a sea of mud slurry, so that the windows and doors of houses became covered in mud as cars and lorries went through.

Sometimes the Pipes and Drums would come to Thurlow and parade through the village, headed by the regimental mascot, an Irish wolfhound. The soldiers would also hold church parades. The armoury where the weapons were kept was at the rear of Mungo Lodge, now No 3. At the weekend when it was quiet I would sometimes go up and see the armourer when he was on duty, and I remember that he taught me how to strip down and reassemble the Bren Gun. This was to come in handy in later years.

The platoon was also equipped with motorcycles, including motorcycles with sidecars. The sidecars were made of tubular steel with heavy metal-plating and were equipped to carry a Bren Gun. The motorcycle was powered by a Norton engine. On Sunday afternoons when all was quiet, some of the NCOs would be down at Bn HQ at Haverhill, and some would be on weekend leave. The soldiers would be riding the bikes around the Mill meadow and we would be given rides in the sidecars. The riders liked us boys in the chairs since we were lighter than their mates and they got faster lap times. They taught us to move around in the sidecars to help with the cornering. There was also a shaft to drive the sidecar wheel, to help get more wheel grip in muddy conditions, but this could only be engaged when travelling in a straight line, as there was no differential; depending on which way the outfit turned, if the drive was not disengaged the bike would try to overtake the chair, or vice versa. The driver would give me a tap on the shoulder, to signal when to operate the lever to the drive shaft. It was very muddy in the meadow, having been churned up by the carriers, and the meadow had two levels, which meant there were two ramps, so that coming down from the top we used to get airborne coming off the slope. (This was to be the start of my involvement in off-road motor cycling!). This activity came to a sudden halt after a visit by CSM from Bn HQ at Haverhill. He thought it was too dangerous and I was given my marching orders.

At the bakery Mrs Rutter, helped by Cherry and Thora, ran a snack bar from their kitchen window, and the soldiers used to queue up the yard when they had their morning break – for tea, rolls, buns and so on.

The London Irish put on the Christmas party for us children at the Town Hall, Haverhill, where we joined the children from Haverhill and had a nice time. The soldiers waited on us and there was entertainment, and we were taken and brought back by an army lorry.

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