Soon after I was eighteen years old, I received my papers to go to Newcastle for an interview, medical and x-ray, to see if I was fit enough for military service. At that time, if I remember rightly, I was asked, quite seriously, what service and unit I wanted to join. I was quite naïve and thought that what you requested was what you got. I can’t recall what my request was, but it wasn’t to be a Sapper. The result of the x-ray that was taken did show a shadow on the lung. I was requested to attend Sunderland Royal Infirmary for a further x-ray, which did determine that the shadow was a reflection of a blood vessel and nothing sinister. Call up to the Army was usually in about four weeks after your eighteenth birthday, so I should have entered service in May. After a delay of nearly three months, I duly received my call up papers in the summer of 1953, draft 53-16. I was requested to report to Number 6 Training Regiment Royal Engineers, Norton Barracks, Worcester, on 20th August 1953 for training. My army pay would be £1.1s 0d per week, (that is £1.05p in today’s money), 7 shilling (35p) of that had to be sent home to our parents and some was kept in ‘credits’, to pay for any barrack room damages that was attributed to us squaddies. I left home on that Thursday morning not knowing what to expect when I arrived at my destination. I arrived at Worcester railway station on the afternoon. Getting off the train, there seemed to be hundreds of young lads like myself. What caught my eye and my ears was this man in uniform with a loud voice and very shiny boots. We were all ushered onto trucks and transported to Norton Barracks, which was next to the depot of the Worcestershire Regiment. From then on everything was done in double time, or so it seemed. Everyone was sent from one hut to another for various registration purposes. I have a quite vivid memory of going into one hut, it turned out to be the QM stores. It was like a production line. You were asked various questions, “what size shirt collar, what size chest, inside leg, cap size and for your feet what size boots?” I, like many others had no idea about the sizes; we had never had occasion to buy any clothing ourselves. All this was happening while people were giving you various items of clothing and kit. In the end, you were told to sign for all the items that you had received, if you could remember. All this at the double in the QM stores lasted for what seemed like about three minutes, but in fact it must have been about forty-five. Needless to say, when you put the kit on almost nothing fitted. We were then marched off, (now being designated as ‘C Squadron’) to the other side of the camp where there were several brick buildings. Some were billets; some were the ablutions and some latrines. In the billet, there were two rows of beds and in the centre, was an iron stove. At the foot of each bed there was a footlocker for your kit. On the side of the bed you had to sling your Lee Enfield .303 rifle on your two short webbing straps. You had to cover the working parts with a yellow duster to keep the dust out which came off the bare concrete floor. You were warned to keep your kit in a safe place, just in case someone took a fancy to it. Needless to say, when I had to go to the latrines I returned to my bed space and found that my cap badge had gone missing. That was after about a couple of hours in the Army. It was a quick and good lesson; I never had anything borrowed for the rest of my service. We had to mark all of our equipment with our service number ‘never to be forgotten 22909188’, either with indelible ink (supplied), or use a punch and die to mark your mess tins and any metal items of equipment, with your service number. Next, we were shown how to ‘barrack’ your bed with folded blankets and sheets. The cover for the mattress was dark green with a black stripe down the centre, that black stripe had to be in the centre of the bed and the corners you had folded into ‘hospital corners’ which was a 45-degree pleat. We were shown how to lace up our boots with the leather laces. No crossed laces, they had to go straight across without any twists in them. How to knot your tie, no Windsor knots were allowed. Our sandshoes/plimsoles/pumps, or whatever you want to call them were issued in a brown colour, but regulations stated ‘they had to be black’, so we had to use our black boot polish to make them black. Our webbing equipment had to be ‘Blancoed’ with ‘Blanco 103’ shade of Green, the brass buckles had to be highly polished with ‘Brasso’ metal polish. As you changed units during your service, the shade of the ‘Blanco’ had to be changed. It seems that the shade of ‘Blanco’ was decided by the C.O. of the unit. We then had to go to the cookhouse for our first meal in the Army. We had ‘mashed cheese and potato, a kipper and an orange’. There was a slice of bread and you had to fish a knob of butter out of a dish full of water. We had to sit on benches at bare wooden tables, in the middle of which were lots of packets of hard-tac biscuits. We were told that “you must have your breakfast on a morning” if you missed it, it was a chargeable offence but if you were late on parade it was also a chargeable offence. After a first restless night, we had to bundle up into a parcel all of our civvy clothes that we had arrived in. We then took the parcel to the camp Post Office to be sent home. The next stop was next door to the Post Office, it was the barber’s shop. You asked for” just a trim.” For everybody it was short-short-short back and sides.
During the first week of square bashing we had also to include some quick changing of equipment, which entailed forming up outside the billet, being dismissed and told to change into different attire, for example: – pyjama bottoms with sandshoes, webbing musketry order or some other weird combination of clothing, just so as to make us change quickly, then reform in three ranks. The last man back on parade was issued with some sort of punishment. Also during the first week it was needles, PT, needles, PULEEMS, and more needles. I was put on orders and told to report to the orderly room. I was informed that I was “underweight” for my height and I would have to go to Seighton Camp in Chester to try and increase my weight. I must point out that even though I was, as they put it, “underweight”, I was as fit as anyone else in the camp, probably fitter than most. Volunteers had been requested to apply for ‘9 (Parachute) Squadron RE’ in which I had shown an interest. For the moment, this was knocked on the head because of me being “underweight”. It was to be two years later that I became an airborne soldier in the Parachute Regiment.
About six or seven of us underweights went off to Seighton Camp on a lovely sunny day, catching the train at Worcester station and to de-train at Chester. For the next four weeks or so all we did was PT and eat as much as you liked with a pint of milk to drink every day as well. The food at Seighton Camp was very good, I think it was to be the best that I would get for the next two years, except when I went home on leave. During exercising on the ‘bars’ in the gym’ I fell and sprained my wrist and had to go to BMH Chester to have an x-ray on my wrist just in case it was broken. After all the exercise and good food for four weeks we were given various tasks to perform. Run, jump, force-march and carry loads. I completed all the tasks without any problems, just as I could have done at the beginning. We were then given a medical and weighed, would you believe it, I was the same weight that I had been at the start.
It must have been late September early October when I returned to Norton Barracks Worcester. All the other recruits of draft 53-16 had left 6 TRRE and had gone onto other training regiments. I along with the others from Chester were put into a ‘Special Squadron’. In other words, we were to be ‘GD Wallahs’ for the next couple of weeks or so doing odd jobs around the camp.
In October, I was posted to C Squadron 1 TR RE, Merebrooke Camp, Malvern, Worcestershire. The next four weeks would consist of square bashing, bulling, rifle drill, bulling and more bulling. Merebrooke Camp accommodation was very different from Norton Barracks, it had been an American Military Hospital during and for a short time after World War 2. There were two ‘Spider Blocks’, (a Spider Block being a corridor with billets radiating off either side), one accommodating ‘C Squadron’ and the other accommodating ‘B Squadron’. Each squaddie had a bed space and a large locker to keep his equipment in. You were responsible for everything within that bed space and locker, when you were inspected. Within the locker, everything had to be laid out to a set arrangement, even your socks and other clothing had to be ‘boxed up’. That consists of putting cardboard in the socks and clothing to make them square when on display on the shelf. Your ‘Great Coat’ had to be ‘Dollied Up’, that is putting the coat on a hanger with the half belt from the back brought around to the front so that you could see all the brass buttons, which had to be polished. Your webbing equipment had to be ‘blancoed’, brass attachments polished and laid out on the bed along with your ‘best boots’ which had to be highly polished, ’bulled’ along with your mess tins. The floor had to be polished and clean. To keep it polished, you had some off cuts of blanket which you used under your boots to shuffle around on so as not to mark the floor.
In November 1953, I was posted to Inglis Barracks at Mill Hill London. The barracks were the Depot of the Middlesex Regiment. We, the Royal Engineers, shared the barracks and the general duties of the camp, including the guard duties with the Middlesex Regiment. This was the training depot for the Army Post Office, my course being PTS 102. After trade training, which lasted into, about January/February 1954, I was posted to Gunsite Camp in West London, which was accessed via Artillery Lane off DuCane Road, between Hammersmith Hospital and HM
P Wormwood Scrubs. I think that the camp was occupied during the Queen’s Coronation by US Service personnel, the dining hall walls were decorated with painted Disney Characters. For the next couple of months, I did my duties at the Home Postal Depot in Knightsbridge London, being transported to and from Gunsite Camp via a truck every day. For our meals during the day we had to walk to a large house in Belgrave Square which had been requisitioned to serve as a cookhouse, if you were on night duty, the meals were brought to the HPD. On a couple of occasions, I was a courier. I had to use the underground system travelling from the Home Postal Depot in Knightsbridge to the GPO HQ, near to St Paul’s Cathedral and then to the War Office (Ministry of Defence Building) near Whitehall. The brief case that I was carrying was chained and to my wrist and was only detached using a key at the GPO HQ and the War Office. At both locations, some items were taken from and other items were put into the brief case, what they were, I don’t know. At the War Office, security was strict. I was escorted to the signal section which was located in the basement, it seemed a large place.
For leisure and recreation, I went to the Nuffield Centre which was close to Trafalgar Square, just off The Strand, it was for service personnel, it had a café/ restaurant and rest rooms. There, from the reception desk you could get complimentary tickets for various London shows/theatres. I went to the Whitehall Theatre to see Brian Rix in one of the farces, I also went to another theatre in The Strand to see a show, I can’t remember what the show was, I also got a ticket to Harringay Arena to see a Christmas Circus.
It was in April 1954 that I got a posting to BAOR. From Gunsite Camp I went to the transit camp at Goodge Street in London, which was situated in an old Tube Station in the underground network. The underground camp was the Head Quarters of General Eisenhower during World War 2. When I arrived at the transit camp/underground station a Red Cap at the entrance was on duty. I was told to put all my kit, (I was in FSMO and carrying a kitbag) in the lift and I was to walk down the spiral staircase to the camp which was in the bowels of the earth. Everything was in tunnels, cookhouse, orderly room and billet. When you were lying in your bunk bed you could hear the underground trains going past. While at Goodge Street transit camp I had to have various medical examinations, which were carried out at various locations. I had to go to Knightsbridge Barracks (the Horse Guards) for a medical and injections which were required for going abroad, then onto Wellington Barracks (the Guards Division), to the dental centre there for a dental examination.
At that time, April 1954, there was a troop ship coming from the Middle East to the UK, it was the ‘HMT Empire Windrush’ it had caught fire and sunk in the Mediterranean Sea. It had happened during the night and everyone had to ‘abandon ship’ in there night clothes. The survivors were taken to North Africa and supplied with clothing. The reason I am saying this now is: – There was British squaddies coming into Goodge Street underground transit camp with French Foreign Legion uniforms on.
I was the senior Sapper of our group on the draft by a couple of weeks. I had to go in front of the RSM, who said that he was promoting me to full corporal to take charge of the draft while in transit to our new posting which was Herford Germany BAOR 15. The RSM said that it was normal practice to keep the rank when you arrived at your new posting and that I would be paid the extra pay for the rank from that date. There it was again; how naïve can you be. I never got the substantive promotion or any extra pay.
Via the underground, we made our way to Liverpool Street Station. We entrained for Harwich. Our group, with hundreds of other squaddies boarded the troop ship at Parkstone Quay. Below decks we had bunks which were four tiers high, the bottom one being a couple of inches off the deck. We sailed over night, there was no sleep, the ship wouldn’t stay still, and you could hear the waves hitting the side of the ship in what turned out to be a stormy night. The morning saw us arrive at the Hook of Holland. There was a large transit shed on the quayside, which acted as a NAFFI. Rationing was still in operation in England. Here, we were given vouches to purchase Cadburys chocolate and two hundred cigarettes at one shilling (that’s 5 pence in to-days money) for a packet of twenty. It was heaven, in England we poor squaddies used to pass a Woodbine around for a smoke.
All the trains into Germany BAOR from the Hook’ were named after colours, all going East, one via a northern route, one via a southern route and so on. I cannot remember our colour off hand; it was either Blue or Red. The trains were a lot more comfortable than the ones at home. Our group had a couple of compartments to ourselves. The cigarettes that we had all purchased in the NAFFI at the Hook’ were being well used. After about an hour or so we all had splitting headaches with the smoke. A Sergeant from Movement Control came down the carriage and handed out tickets for a lunch, which was available in the dining car. We all thought that we would have to pay. On arrival in the dining car we found tables that had tablecloths on and cutlery laid out. Prior to this we had to use our own eating irons using a bare table to eat from.
So, it was off to Germany
On arrival in the evening at Herford Hop Barnhof, we were picked up and transported in a ‘three-tonner’ and taken to 8 Command Postal Depot where we were given a meal. As I remember it was egg and chips and very nice too. The 8 CPD was located in the requisitioned ‘Poggenpohl’ furniture factory in Herford. We were then
transported to the other side of town to our camp, which was Hammersmith Barracks, the original German name of the camp was Estorff Kaserne. The camp was shared with units of 11th Armoured Division. The camp was rumoured to have been a German SS barracks before and during the war, or so we were told. The accommodation was a lot better than we had been used to. There was six to a room and with doubled glazed windows to keep the sound and cold out. While I was at 8 Command Postal Depot I did duties in the Telegraph Room, in charge of the German Telegraphists and also in the Registed/ Courier Locker in charge of the German staff there. After which, in about July 1954, I was posted to Munchen Gladbach BAOR 34 to work in the Registed Courier Locker.
I did like my posting in Munchen Gladbach, it was 152 Postal Unit, the SSO was Major Waldren F.E. The unit was later to be renamed 207 Postal Unit. We had to work long hours but that tended to keep you out of trouble. We lived in a civvy billet in the middle of a residential area. Our billet was self-contained; it was a large house. It was in Gnieisenaustrasse I think it was number 38. There must have been about twenty squaddies in there. We had or own cookhouse and bar. The APO was in the next street, Rheinbahnstrasse, the building is now ‘Courthouse Arbitsgericht’. The APO was in the basement. While there, I did on occasion act as courier travelling to an APO which was on RAF Eindhoven in Holland. To get there we left Munchen Gladbach in the morning, returning in the evening. At that time, real coffee was scarce and expensive in Germany. What used to happen was; you would buy Douwe Egberts Gold or Silver bags of coffee beans in Eindhoven, take them back to Germany and sell or exchange for whatever was a bargain. The Germans wouldn’t entertain ground coffee ‘it may have been doctored’. I still have my Border Pass for that time.
I had some leave to take in the autumn of 1954. I packed all my kit and put it into the QM store, as was the ruling, expecting to retrieve it on my return in fourteen days’ time. I got my two weeks’ supply of cigarettes plus some that I already had and off I went. I arrived back in the UK at Parkstone Quay, I had to go through customs, “have you anything to declare?” I informed the customs officer that I had my ration of cigarettes, he said that I had more than I should have had and charged me fourteen bob (70 pence). I was then told that there was a National Rail strike and I would have to travel to Sunderland via road in a “three-tonner”, stopping overnight in Nottingham. This was not on; it would be at least one day of my leave wasted. As all army convoys stop for ten minutes every hour. I took the opportunity of getting off the wagon at the first stop. Walked up the road for a few yards and was able to thumb a lift as far a Newark, then another lift from there to Gateshead and so from there to Sunderland. When I arrived home, it was to a new house, the family had moved to 51 Washington Road Hylton Castle.
I enjoyed my leave. After the fourteen days leave I went back to Munchen Gladbach. On arrival, I was picked up at the Hop Barnhof, only to be told that I was to be posted to Rhinedalen, which was a couple of miles up the road. Rhinedalen was to be the new HQ for BAOR. I was only there a few days. Then I was posted to Dusseldorf, they needed someone to work in the Registered Locker
I went by truck to Dusseldorf to serve in the APO there which was housed in a building called Steel House, just behind Konigsallee. There again, I was in a civvy billett just the other side of Konigsallee, beside the park, it was not as good as it was in Munchen Gladbach. You had to find a ‘pit’ wherever you could. There wasn’t any lockers and you had to keep your kit packed, any cupboards in the house had been claimed by either rank or first there. We had to mess across the road in a building occupied by the RMPs. I was there about a month, in which time I saw quite a bit of the city and surrounding area. Soon I was on the move again.
It must have been just before Christmas 1954, I was posted to the APO on RAF Wahn BAOR 19, just outside Cologne. Part of the air field was and still is Cologne-Bonn airport. There must have only been about six of us squaddies there plus the sergeant. I am unable to remember all the names of the lads there but there was, Sgt Tom Johnstone, Sapper’s John Bolton from London, Gordon Millard from Gillingham in Dorset and Mike Few from Cambridge. Once again, I was sent there to work in the Registered/Courier Locker. Part of my duty was, on a morning to travel down to the Marienburg district of the City of Cologne with all the mail for the British civvies, including BFBS Koln the forces radio network and open a small post office counter doing normal PO counter work. I would then return to RAF Wahn with the outgoing mail that I had received in Cologne. I would then work with the rest of the lads to despatch the mail from the APO to the UK which would last until about six o’clock. It was a very busy place, with little time off. I spent the rest of my service there.
It was the beginning of August 1955 that I started the journey that would get me back home to Jean. I left BAOR 19 and travelled to Dusseldorf where I met up with a few old mates. I spent a few days there, kicking my heels, then it was down to the Hop Barnhof for the train that would take me back to the Hook of Holland.
I arrived back in the UK and was put on a train by Movement Control that would take me eventually to Barton Stacy in Hampshire where all Royal Engineers were ‘demobbed’. There I was to hand in all the kit that I had been given two years previously, with a few exceptions. We had various parades in which we had to attend in FSMO. A few wide boys had their packs ‘boxed’ so it would look as though they were carrying all their kit and thought that they could get away with it. The WO 2 doing an inspection was up to all the tricks. As he went along the ranks inspecting the rear, he would put his drill stick under the top flap of the valise and down. All you could hear was the knocking like an empty box; in fact, that was all that it was. I was only at Barton Stacy for about one week. Almost everyone was skulking and hiding around corners, just in case they got a job. Some people never learned; skiving was the hardest thing to do in the army.
I then signed up for the Parachute Regiment and was accepted. I must have put on some weight. On the 14th February 1956, I was transferred to the Parachute Regiment. At that point, I was attached to HQ Coy. 17 PARA where I did some basic parachute ground training. In the May of 1956 I was sent to No1 Parachute Training School at RAF Abingdon. After my Parachute training which consisted of eight parachute jumps, I was presented with my Parachute Wings on the 2nd June 1956.
In the photograph, which was taken just before our first jump, I am front row on the right. On the course, for our parachute jumps, apart from the Balloon, we used Valetta, Hastings and Beverly Aircraft, mainly dropping at ‘Weston on the Green’.
On returning to unit, I was posted to Support Company of my Battalion as an Assault Pioneer, which was thought to be more in keeping with me being previously a Sapper in the Royal Engineers.
As an Assault Pioneer; it was my job to deal with anything appertaining to explosives: – Demolition, Booby Traps, Mine laying/recovery. The ‘High Explosives’ charges which we used were mainly of ‘Gun Cotton’ and ‘808 Plastic’ explosives. My termination of engagement and discharge was 14th February 1960. A further four years until 1964 was served in Reserve.