In 1954 I was thirteen years old and was a pupil at Colditz. Well, Skinners’ Grammar School for Boys, as it was more commonly known. Every Thursday afternoon, everyone in the third, fourth and fifth forms was consigned to the loving care of Sergeant-Major Jock Williams, who headed the school CCF (Combined Cadet Force).
Being of lowly origin, Jock would never have dreamt of aspiring to officer rank. It was Foxy Bennett, gentleman of that parish, who occasionally sauntered on stage, immaculately attired in his major’s uniform, and nonchalantly acknowledged the entire Skinners’ School fighting force with a languid wave of his highly polished swagger stick.
Mostly, we didn’t see Foxy. The everyday sadism was administered by Jock Williams, and by God, he enjoyed it. We were marched up and down the quadrangle, made to stand at attention for hours, given endless rifle drill, and having finished our first year in the CCF, we were expected to be able to be able to strip and reassemble a Bren gun, blindfolded.
If any of our number had the misfortune to drop his rifle during drill, he was called out in front of the entire CCF, publicly humiliated by Jock, and then forced to double up and down the quad carrying his rifle and a full pack for an hour. Bad enough in the winter but in the summer this treatment usually resulted in the victim shaking with fatigue or flat out on the ground with heat prostration.
One Thursday my particular mate, Dickie Durrant, whilst trying to ensure that his woodbines didn’t get squashed during rifle drill, dropped his short Lee-Enfield mark one, drill purposes only weapon. Jock Williams, he of the short legs and purple face, called Dickie out in front of the platoon and gave him the mother and father of all dressings down. There were several references to Dickie’s abysmally low IQ, and the validity of his parent’s marriage. Then he was assigned the usual punishment of doubling up and down the quadrangle for an hour, bearing a full pack and carrying the recalcitrant rifle.
I remember that it was a hot June day. Lashed on by the abusive tongue of his Sergeant Major, Dickie collapsed at about the fifty minute mark. By this time, the afternoon’s military activities were over and Jock Williams stood over Dickie and promised him that on the following Thursday, he would repeat his punishment for another hour. If he fell short again, the punishment would be repeated every week until completed properly.
With Dickie still lying flat on his stomach, I fetched him a glass of water from the cloakroom. Just as I reached Dickie, I was stopped by a bellow from the other side of the quad. I turned to see Jock Wilson marching towards me, his face even more purple than usual, and a prominent vein throbbing in his forehead.
Snatching the water from me he threw it over the still supine form.
“If I catch you interfering with punishment again, you’ll be joining this b****** next week.”
Making a strategic withdrawal, I waited in our classroom for Dickie. Eventually, I took him back to my house, as I lived only a hundred yards away from the school. I freely admit that I practically had steam coming out of my ears at the sheer injustice of the incident, but Dickie was remarkably sanguine.
“Jock’s not the man to cross,” said Dickie. “Do you remember what Buster told us about him?”
I nodded glumly. Buster, who taught biology and had once been found guilty of treating boys as human beings, had told us that he had seen Jock’s C.V. when he had applied to the school for the job of gardener/ military sadist. During the war he had been a member of the elite commando unit that had taken part in the St Nazaire raid. Buster had been in on Jock’s interview, and told us that under questioning as to his ability to ill treat boys, Jock had revealed that he had killed a German sentry with his bare hands during the raid. No wonder Dickie was being philosophical.
The following Monday, I arrived at school at two minutes to nine as usual. There was a kafuffle going on around the grass bank which sloped down to the playing fields. By the time I got there almost the entire school, including the masters, were grouped around the entrance to one of the school air raid shelters. These were underground and had been kept intact after the war, because a) the Russians were threatening to annihilate us with their nuclear missiles, and b) they were very useful for Jock to keep his lawnmowers and suchlike in.
From behind the blast proof steel doors of one of the shelters came the most terrible swearing, sort of muffled but still, to our unmitigated joy, decipherable. Since boys enjoying themselves were against the most basic school rules, we were all shepherded off to assembly, whilst a few of the masters awaited the arrival of the fire brigade. Dickie had the entire story and related it, punctuated by bouts of hysterical laughter, to me as we made our way to the school hall.
It seems that late on the previous Friday afternoon, Jock was putting away his lawnmower and cleaning it for the weekend. Someone had slammed the steel doors behind him and locked them. Being a bachelor, no one was expecting him home, so he spent the entire weekend in the air raid shelter.
It took the fire brigade two hours to cut round the lock with an oxyacetylene torch and release poor Jock. He emerged swearing revenge on whoever had imprisoned him, and I don’t suppose the barely suppressed laughter that accompanied his every move helped much. In assembly, we were harangued by the headmaster and threatened with dire consequences if the miscreant did not own up. Needless to say, everyone had the sense to keep quiet.
That Thursday afternoon, I don’t think anyone was looking forward to CCF. Not surprisingly, in view of the expected vitriol from Jock Williams, Foxy Bennett was conspicuous by his absence. We were all lined up in open order, which meant every boy was the statutory one yard from his fellow. This was so that Jock could stamp up and down the ranks, peering into each boy’s eyes, to see if he could detect the slightest glimmer of guilt therein.
Jock called the contingent to attention, and after the synchronised thump of 150 boots, the silence was such that you could hear a pin drop. Then, into the silence, there rang a metallic clatter.
“Nobody move!” shrieked Jock. So we didn’t. He stomped purposefully through the ranks to the source of the noise. He halted, exuding menace from every pore, in front of a boy called Dobson. Bending, he picked up a key. Without a single word being spoken, we all knew that this was the key to the air raid shelter.
Jock grasped Dobson’s collar and hauled him through the ranks, scattering boys left and right. I was unfortunate enough to be in the front rank and I saw, quite precisely, what happened next. As they reached the space in front of the assembled boys, Dobson, white faced with terror, regained his feet and tried to tear himself free from the one handed grasp of the furious Sergeant-Major. With his free hand, Jock reached across Dobson, and with his forearm across Dobson’s throat, sort of jerked him. Everyone heard the crack. Dobson went limp.
Williams let him collapse onto the ground – looked down at him for a second – then marched off the parade ground. None of us ever saw him again.
The next day, the police questioning started, and I was hauled in to give my evidence as to what happened on that fateful afternoon. Being under fourteen, I was not required to testify in court, but we all avidly followed the trial and conviction of John Martin Williams for murder.
On Monday, July 11th 1955, at nine o’clock in the morning, Jock kept his appointment with Albert Pierrepoint, at Her Majesty’s Prison, Pentonville. In school assembly the dreaded name was not uttered, but everyone’s eyes were on the clock – and when the school clock struck nine, there was a sort of sigh.
“Serves him f****** right,” said Dickie.
“Yes,” said I.
I next bumped into Dickie on Tonbridge station in 1994. He looked quite ill and it took me several minutes to persuade him to join me for a beer in the Angel. Dickie had fifteen minutes before his bus came, and we chatted about the old days. Inevitably, the Jock story came up.
“If it had all happened ten years later, hanging would have been abolished and that b****** Jock would have been looking forward to his first parole by now,” said Dickie.
“I never agreed with hanging,” I answered. “But at least they got the right man that time.”
“I’m bloody glad Jock didn’t.”
It took about ten seconds for the full import of what Dickie had said to sink in – whereupon I choked into my pint.
“Do you mean….do you mean???” I spluttered.
Dickie gave me his funny little lopsided grin. “That’s right,” he said. “My coat hook was next to Dobson’s in the cloakroom. I stuck the key in the hatband of his forage cap. ‘Course, I didn’t know it was going to fall out on the parade ground, did I?” He got to his feet, picked up his coat, and turned to look at me. “I never liked Dobson much anyway, did you?”
I can’t remember what I replied. Two years later I heard that Dickie had died from a stomach ulcer. I never said anything about the key.
Well, you can’t split on a mate, can you?