By Frank Dunkley
Gordon Barracks … A nondescript collection of wooden huts standing back from the A2 trunk road at Gillingham.
To the passing motorist hardly worth a second glance. But once – for a few brief but notorious years – it had a different name. A name that struck fear and foreboding in the minds of all those who ever stood in danger of being sent there.
It was Fort Darland, a wartime “glasshouse”, officially a detention barracks. And, as such, it was surrounded by a perimeter fence of 12ft high barbed-wire. It was a grim, bleak, windswept place where Soldiers Under Sentence were confined for their misdeeds. A place where life was tough – and purposefully so. Because in those days a bad soldier – or sailor or airman – was a luxury the Services could not afford.
Understandably, therefore, that from the moment any serviceman was escorted through the gates he was shouted at, sworn at, kicked around, made to do everything “at the double”, deprived not only of his liberty but of tobacco and of Naafi char and of all those other things that made Service life tolerable.
And members of the MPSC – the Military Provost Staff Corps – did their best to ensure that the rigours of the glasshouse were not to be preferred to the discomfort of the barrack room, the parade ground and the assault course.
This, then, was the Fort Darland where one Rifleman William Clayton 3 nicknamed “Sammy” – found himself early in 1943. Clayton was one of those wartime misfits inevitably thrown up by conscription – a man, like most of those who comprised the inmates of Fort Darland, who was congenitally unable to accept service discipline. Perhaps it was because he felt he should never really have been in the Army at all. After all, he was nearing 40, he had been placed in medical category “C” and suffered from breathlessness and pains-in the chest. He was also very deaf.
Not exactly the stuff that fighting heroes are made of.
In fact Clayton’s entire Army career had been spent in and out of glasshouses. This was his fourth sentence of detention and it was therefore not unnatural that the “screws” – the MPSC – regarded him with contempt. He was, in their eyes, the perpetual malingerer, the deadbeat, the shyster who was, no doubt, trying to work his ticket. Certainly, he was the sort of character not to be pandered to. If he wanted it the hard way, he would get it in Fort Darland.
And he did. The screws put the boot in.
Clayton died. And so it was that this reluctant soldier came to write his own bizarre chapter in the history of the Second World War. Because from that day, Army glasshouses were never the same again.
His death provoked an uproar when the sorry story of his last afternoon was gradually revealed at the four-day long inquest at the Royal Naval Hospital in Gillingham. Clayton, doubling across the square with a squad of men, had suddenly fallen out. Staff Sergeant James Pendleton, who earlier had rebuked Clayton for not wearing his respirator properly, asked him why. Clayton muttered: “I can’t march, sir.”
He was then handed over to Regimental Sergeant Major John Culliney and Quarter Master Sergeant Leslie Salter, whose intention was to take him to the single cell punishment block ready to be charged next morning.
But he was not charged. And he did not see the next morning. Rifleman Clayton died that afternoon. Culliney and Salter killed him.
They had first marched him to his quarters for his kit. But he only just made it. RSM Culliney was annoyed. Clayton, he thought, was pushing his luck a bit far, even for a malingerer. And when Clayton said he wasn’t well enough to pack his kit, the RSM slapped him in the face.
QMS Salter then handed Clayton his kit and told him to get moving to the cell block. Clayton staggered out of the hut. His progress was too slow for Salter who began to get impatient.
“Come on, march at my pace now, not your own,” he said. Clayton dropped his kit, and nearly fell over. RSM Culliney punched him on the jaw and he fell the other way. He was picked up, punched again and shaken vigorously. Salter twisted his arm and propped him against the wall.
Culliney was very angry. He punched Clayton. Blood flowed from his mouth and nose. He was propelled along by Salter holding his collar and arm. He collapsed again. He was in a bad state but still conscious … just.
Salter had him put in a barrow and taken to the cell block. Clayton was now unconscious, his face ashen, dried blood cracking on his face. To revive him, his head was held in a drain. Salter shook him so that his head banged against the sides like a coconut.
Water was sprinkled on his face. Salter was getting a bit nervous – the man looked dead, or near it. His face was blue and grey, his tongue white and curled towards the back of his throat.
Clayton was taken to the night-watchman’s room and sat on a chair. His head lolled limply on to his chest, blood clotted on the back of his head, saliva bubbled in his mouth. A medical orderly was called and William Clayton was certified dead. The verdict at the inquest was death by tuberculosis accelerated by the violence of RSM Culliney and QMS Salter.
The coroner, Mr TB Bishop, said: “A man might be in a dying condition but he may have some prospect of living – maybe only an hour, a week, a month or even more – and he is entitled to that. If anyone accelerated his death by even a few hours, that amounts to manslaughter.”
And Culliney and Salter were so charged. At their trial at Kent Assizes, where both were found guilty, Mr Justice Humphries said: “I am satisfied that the unfortunate man, probably not because he was desirous of being troublesome, but because he ought never to have been allowed in the Army at all in his state of health, was, in fact, a man who gave a great deal of trouble to those in control of him.”
But the judge added: “I believe that Culliney lost his temper and behaved in a brutal way towards a man believed to be malingering and I think Salter to some extent acted under orders. This sort of conduct cannot be tolerated.”
Culliney was jailed for 18 months and Salter to a year. And they both lost their rank and an hope of a pension. But that was not the end of the story. Rifleman Clayton’s death had shocked the conscience of the nation. At the inquest, while a member of the MPSC was giving evidence, Clayton’s father had shouted out “Gestapo!”
And the way certain members of the corps had behave left an unpleasant feeling that their conduct and standard were not far removed from those Nazis whom the country was fighting. Recalcitrant conscripts had to be punished – public feeling was that Britain did not need concentration camps.
The War Minister, Sir James Grigg, was called on to make a full statement in the House of Commons on the conditions and methods of discipline in detention barracks and to say whether it was a fact that the treatment similar to that which led to the death of Rifleman Clayton had been administered regularly to prisoners for at least the previous 18 months. And among the demands being made by MPs was the introduction of penal standards “in greater conformity with normal civilised practice”.
Sir James firmly insisted that the case of Rifleman Clayton was in no way usual or typical of the treatment received by men in Detention Barracks. But he promised that a Military Court of Inquiry would be held into the case. But after all the evidence had been heard at the Assize Court, 60 MPs pressed for a full and independent inquiry into the whole detention camp system in the country.
The MPs were not content to let the War Office merely conduct its own inquiry because they believed that it would not unmask “certain unsavoury features of detention camps,” of which the public had got a glimpse.
One member asked the minister whether he appreciated that the country had been profoundly disturbed by the revelations in the case and that nothing short of drastic measures would satisfy it.
The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, told the Commons that a judicial inquiry would be presided over by Mr Justice Oliver and would be in private. Its terms of reference, he said, would be: “To inquire into and report on the treatment of the men under sentence in naval and military prisons and detention barracks in the United Kingdom, and whether it is in accordance with modern standards and satisfies wartime requirements.
“Investigations will cover the supervision and administration of discipline, medical care, training, welfare, accommodation, feeding, and the suitability of staff.”
The result was sweeping changes at Fort Darland and other Detention Barracks throughout the country. They were still staffed by the MPSC – who by this time had come to be known as the “Murderers of Poor Sammy Clayton”. But from the time of his death their mailed fist was covered by a kid glove.
And Sammy Clayton, many said, did not die in vain.
Editor’s note: Frank Dunkley had good reason to write this feature with great passion. He experienced the Darland glasshouse first hand while on national service in the Second World War.