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Chapter 2 - Joining the Royal Marines


My Application

In 1939 I became interested in joining the Royal Marines after hearing my father talk about them and seeing a recruiting advert in the local papers. I filled in the paper cutting and posted it off to the recruiting offices in Belfast.

Within two weeks I received a reply. I was asked to go to the Belfast recruiting offices where I completed a series of tests and the recruiting officer informed me that I had passed the tests. I was accepted into the Royal Marines. The recruiting officer told me that it would be a couple of months before they would get in touch

A fortnight later I was working in Boyd’s Engineering paint shop when the girl from the Post Office next door came into the workplace. She reached me a letter marked OHMS. I read the letter; rolled up the putty I was working with, stuck the putty knife in the putty and informed everyone that I was off. Albert Boyd was annoyed because I had joined up without letting him know.

The letter was asking me to report to Belfast the following Monday. My parents were unaware of my decision to join up. But they managed to work it out when they recalled the mysterious trip to Belfast earlier in the month. My father was reluctant to sign the consent form when he realized that I was joining the Royal Marines and not the Royal Enniskilling Fusiliers as he had done.

In June 1939 at the age of sixteen and a half I travelled from my home to Belfast, over to Liverpool and then down to the Royal Marine Depot at Deal in Kent. Initially there were three recruits from Northern Ireland; a boy from Larne, one from Belfast and myself. We then met up with ten other recruits in Liverpool.

The First Week as Recruits

At the RM Depot we were escorted to the drill shed. There was a set of blankets, toilet gear, towels and uniforms all set out in the drill shed, each item was marked with our names. The first words spoken to any of us were, ‘If you can read, grab your own towels and soap and follow me’. We followed our escort into the bathroom. Our escort shouted, ‘Wash your dirty civilian bodies. It’s only clean men we allow in here!’ There was one poor guy who replied to that comment and by the time our escort was finished with him he was sorry he said anything.

After a good bath we were escorted back to the drill shed for a nights sleep. At 6am we were given a rousing call and informed, ‘You will not be taken to the dining hall for breakfast. You are not yet presentable for the dining room!’ The cooks brought our food to us in the drill hall that morning.

Within the first week we had been issued with all our kit except our uniforms. We were issued with two shirts, one was white and the other was a blue pinstripe. At no stage were we ever issued with khaki shirts.  



Royal Marine Kit Inspection - 1939

The Depot Commandant

The first Monday at the Depot the Commandant introduced himself and explained in great detail what our training entailed and what was expected of us throughout all our training year. Our training was to start that month and run for a year until the following June in 1940 but that didn’t happen. The war intervened with our training and after our initial six months training we ‘Passed Out’ as Royal Marines in the first week of December.

Barrack Accommodation

I was posted to 355 Squad for my recruit training. We were then taken to the barrack rooms and pointed out my bed. Two voices piped up, ‘What the hell are you doing here Balmer!’ I looked round and there were two of my former classmates from Eden, Ballymoney, William Alexander and Malachy Taggart. They had been in the Royal Marines for six weeks but I was unaware of that. They had joined together because they always socialised together in Kilrea whereas I always went to Ballymoney on my time off. That was a lucky meeting because they were able to ‘show me the ropes’.

Each barracks had a Corporal who was responsible for the barrack room. If he was sober he would help the recruits get to grips with their kit and equipment. We hardly ever saw our Corporal because he was a champion water polo player for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines.

The best bit of advice he ever gave us was, ‘If you ever feel that you are being abused, even by your instructor, come and tell me and I will sort the problem out.’ We queried how a Corporal could sort out someone senior to himself. He told us that he would not hesitate in taking our problem to the highest authority if necessary.  

There was also an old soldier in each barracks who was responsible for showing us all how to press our clothing, clean, polish, assemble and fit our webbing, clean our boots and how to make ourselves presentable. He had been in the Royal Marines for ten years and we all benefited from his knowledge. He had no war stories to tell us because the decade from 1929 to 1939 had been relatively quiet.

We had six weeks to learn how to dress ourselves before we would ever be allowed outside the depot.


Basic Training

As a recruit we did all the basic foot drill with and without weapons. We did arms drill, fixing bayonets at the halt and on the march, changing arms on the march. Fixing bayonets on the march was a tricky operation. We were issued with the eighteen-inch bayonets and you could easily have stabbed the man in front of you as you tried to fix it to the rifle and bring the rifle back up to the slope.

Every recruit squad had forty men so that there were always two blank files when you paraded in ranks of three. Every recruit had their turn at the front rank of the blank files. There was a lot more work to do in that position when you were on the march.


The Cambridge Graduate

There was a former Cambridge graduate in our squad. He had stood down from his Cambridge education and this created a rift with his parents. But they always sent him a weekly allowance so he was quite well off for a recruit. He also made other money from teaching potential officers mathematics. I earned the princely sum of 25p each week for cleaning his boots and webbing. That kept me supplied with cleaning gear. You use a lot of cleaning gear as a recruit.

There were three colours of Blanco alone: white for the ceremonial webbing, green for webbing and brown for the lace-up gaiters, barrack room slippers and shoes. We had to wear brown gaiters as recruits. The barrack room slippers were canvas with brown leather toes, soles and heels. Many years later, in 1950, when 45 Cdo were being shipped to Malaya we would parade in the evenings in our deck slippers.

We were expected to ‘lay out’ our kit for inspection at least once every month.


The Apology

About a week later I was on the parade ground for instructions on arms drill. We were being taught the present arms from the shoulder and the drill instructor, Sergeant Clark, had us standing close to a pebble dashed wall. If your present arms came out too far from your body you would scrape your knuckles on the wall in front. I did scrape my knuckles and dropped my rifle. The drill instructor called me an ‘Irish bastard’. I persevered to the end of the day. At 4pm. I then took off all my webbing, went to tea and then instead of cleaning my webbing I collapsed on my bed and gave up.

At about 7pm the Corporal came into the room and asked me what I was doing lying on my bed. Another recruit told him that the Drill Sergeant had called me an Irish bastard and not only was he annoyed everyone else was. The Corporal asked us if we were all prepared to stand by our statements and we told him we would. The Corporal detailed the squad to take all my kit and get it in good order for inspection. He ordered me to get off the bed and get my boots ready for inspection.

The Corporal spoke to the Company commander the next morning. At lunchtime the Corporal came to me and said that I would get an apology from the Drill Sergeant that day. I found that difficult to believe but I told the Corporal that I would be in the barrack room that evening if the Sergeant wanted to apologise. ‘Oh no,’ the Corporal replied, ‘You will not be in the barrack room for the apology. It will take place on the parade ground in front of the other thirty nine recruits in your squad.’

That is exactly how it happened. The Drill Sergeant called me out of the squad and apologised to me on the parade ground and then asked me if I accepted the apology and extended his hand for me to shake. Of course I did and there were no repercussions on me for reporting him at any time.

One Wednesday he selected me for the football team. When I told him that there were better men than me in the squad he told me that I can use both feet, I was a good runner and I was not scared. So there was no animosity on his part for having to apologise to me on the parade ground.

That drill instructor was known as a King’s Badge man. That means he always showed potential, even as a recruit and was selected as an instructor. That day he miscalled me was probably the only black mark against him in his career. I met him again after I had been in Germany for five years as a prisoner of war. He had reached the rank of Captain and despite qualifying as a Major he believed that he would never get any further than the Captains rank for reasons unknown to him.


Seamanship Training

One phase of our training was basic seamanship training; we went to Chatham for that. We were trained in boat drills, rope handling, sailing and how to raise and lower the ships boats in Chatham. We learned to man the cutters and whalers.  These were the wooden boats used by the Royal Navy. That training was stopped when war damaged ships came to the dockyard for repairs.


Guard Duties

During your recruit training you were tasked to other duties. For example, over the twelve months of recruit training you had to perform one guard duty every month. These were either there were twelve or twenty-four hour guard duties.

One of the worst jobs you could get was the Adjutants Orderly. He had a horse and he would ride this animal onto the parade, dismount and then call you over to hold the reins while he carried out his duties. He always said, ‘Be gentle, he bites!’ ‘And don’t pull on the reins’. The horse was wicked, you had to watch him all the time otherwise he would take a nip at you.

The next guard duty I was assigned to was Officer of the Day Orderly. That was an easier duty because all you had to do was parade twice daily and once in the evenings when he went round the outposts checking on the guard. The next guard duty was Guard Orderly. I had to be in the Guard Room at all times to act as messenger for anyone who asked.

I only had one Rifle Guard duty in my training year and that was the worst of the lot. I was tasked to guard the pay office; a very lonely duty in a damp corner of the Depot. There were stories told about that spot, just enough to scare you. It was said that someone broke into the pay office and was shot for his troubles. His ghost was supposed to haunt the area. It was a story that kept everyone away from the pay office but the least little noise would scare the life out of you.

One of the better guard duties was at the wharf where the training cutters and whalers were moored. There was an old marine there as a night watchman who kept a hot brazier glowing all night. He usually invited you down to have a cup of coffee and a yarn. The old guy had ears like a fox and could hear someone approaching long before I did and would warn me off. I usually reached the sentry box before the Orderly Sergeant reached me.