I never joined up to fight for King and Country, though I was patriotic enough. No, I enlisted for the sheer hell of it, for the adventure. I had no idea how much hell there would be.
There was no sense of heroic departure when I went off to war. We left Liverpool on the troopship Otranto on a bright August morning in 1940 with no idea where we were headed.
I looked at the Royal Liver Building, across the broadening strip of brown Mersey water and wondered whether I would ever see the green Liver birds crowning it again. Liverpool had not seen much bombing then. It would get its share a month after I left, but for now it was largely a peaceful city. I was twenty-one years old and I felt indestructible. If I lose a limb, I promised myself, I am not coming home. I was a red-headed soldier with a temperament to match and it would get me into lots of trouble but that is just how I was.
I joined the army because I was in too much of a rush to join the RAF. The paperwork took longer. That was my first lucky escape. Watching the Spitfires plying the clouds overhead I still wanted to fly, but joining the RAF then would have meant near certain death. The RAF pilots were the knights of air, but when the Battle of Britain started, the poor buggers didn't live long and I was lucky to be out of it.
I enlisted on 16 October 1939, and I was a crack shot so Rifleman Denis George Avey No. 6914761 was selected to join the 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade, and was packed off for training at a barracks in Winchester.
Rain or shine, it was pretty rigorous. As a 'regular' mob they gave us new recruits a particularly hard time. There was an awful lot of drill, plus physical training and endless obstacle courses so we collapsed exhausted into our bunks each night and were pretty fit by the end of it. We were taught to use every weapon available to the British Army but I had grown up with guns. My father bought me my first shotgun, a 'four-ten', when I was eight years old. It had a specially shortened stock so I could get my arms around it and I have still got it on my wall.
My father insisted on strict discipline with guns. In the country you didn't get the 'yes possiblys' - things were black and white. I grew up in a world of moral certainties, and I was expected to stand up for what was right. He taught me to respect humans and animals. Birds were shot for the larder, not for sport. I learnt to shoot on clay pigeons, and pretty soon I could throw them in the air myself, pick up the gun, and knock them out of the sky before they fell to the ground.
Army rifle shooting was a different ball game, but I quickly got the hang of it, and I was soon hitting bulls on every range up to 600 yards.
At the end of one particularly long day of physical training, we were on the Winchester rifle range. I squeezed the trigger of the Lee-Enfield .303, felt the kick and hit the bull's eye, no trouble.
The chaps operating the targets were hidden behind an earth mound. They pointed out the hits using a long pole with a twelve-inch white disc on the end. As the chap lifted the pointer hesitantly towards the bull to mark my hit, I pulled back the bolt and shot the white disk clear out of his hand.
The target man wasn't in any danger, but I am ashamed to admit I was showing off. It got me a severe reprimand but it made me popular with the regular soldiers. I was made a 'star' man on account of my marksmanship and wore a badge on my uniform to prove it.
The bayonet training had been pretty grisly. Bayonets are always known as 'swords' in the Rifles. We were being prepared to kill people up close where you could smell a man's breath and see if he had shaved that morning. You were ordered to run at human effigies thirty yards away, screaming and hollering as you charged. You jabbed the blade into the guts, pulled it out and swung the rifle butt around so you could knock his head off as you passed.
Excerpted from The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz by Denis Avey and Rob Broomby. Copyright © 2011 by Denis Avey and Rob Broomby. Excerpted by permission of Da Capo Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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