A SIMPLE SOLDIER
JOIN THE ARMY, LEARN A TRADE, ADVENTURE, TRAVEL & GET PAID
Sometimes, insignificant factors can alter your life. In my case it was because a bus was running late, (and not just any bus, but a trolley bus which certainly dates me) that I joined the Army. Why the bus? Well in 1955 few seventeen year olds owned a car or motorcycle, in fact my trusty pushbike had been passed down from my elder brother. So how did the late arrival of that bus on a March evening affect me? Whilst standing at that bus stop in Grimsby I gazed idly at the window display of a Gent’s outfitter’s shop, which was a magnificent selection of military blazer badges, a host of patterns and devices in confections of glittering gold and silver wire, silk threads and materials in every colour of the rainbow. In those days male fashion decreed that a badge on the breast pocket of your blazer was de rigueur; School, Association, Regiment or similar. Well, everyone it seemed except me. The breast pocket of my blazer was embarrassingly naked! Suddenly I was attracted by one particular badge - an exceptionally evil looking one comprising a silver skull surmounting a pair of crossbones from which hung a scroll emblazoned with the words: or Glory. A thrill raced through me, I immediately coveted the idea of such a distinctive badge adorning my blazer. Surely such an impressive emblem would assist me in my major and overwhelming desire - to find a gorgeous girlfriend!! As I climbed on the bus and took my seat the vision of that badge was clearly imprinted on my mind.
I had no family connection at all with the armed forces, nor any thoughts in that direction, but I knew only too well my call up for National Service at eighteen was only months away. I was also very aware that the majority of teenagers I knew joined the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment, who were then serving in Malaya. Tales of wading chest deep through steaming swamps in the jungle, whilst being shot at by an unseen enemy, was an experience which frightened me, certainly something I was willing to forgo. Over the following days the vision of that badge was uppermost in my thoughts. My interest and curiosity grew, until I plucked up courage and cycled to the Army Recruiting Office in Grimsby, leaving shortly afterwards clasping a pile of pamphlets and leaflets detailing careers in the regular army. It took me little time to discover that the badge I coveted belonged to the 17th/21st Lancers. Until then I had assumed Hussars, Lancers and Dragoons were things from history books and boys comics - I was most surprised to discover they still existed. Then, in one publication I read the words, which, half a century later, remain crystal clear in my mind: ‘The glamour and tradition of the Cavalry with the interests of the mechanised world.’ That clinched it - I was hooked - I wanted to join the army and be a cavalryman – oh the innocence and naivety of a callow 1950’s youth.
With little thought, but a mounting enthusiasm, I hurriedly returned to that red painted recruiting office on the following morning. It was with some difficulty that I managed to convince the grizzled old Lincolnshire regiment Sergeant that I did not wish to join the Lincolns, but, when announcing my mind was set on the 17th/21st Lancers, he immediately changed his attitude. After informing me the regiment was known as the Death or Glory boys he stepped back and looked me up and down, then announced he knew that the Lancers would welcome a keen and smart young chap like me with open arms. That man certainly knew exactly how to handle the immature seventeen year old standing before him that day. My eyes must have glazed, my mouth dropping in awe, when he stated that as a regular soldier, and, what was more, a Lancer, I would be issued with a smart navy blue walking-out dress uniform with brass buttons, double yellow stripes down each trouser leg, chain mail on the shoulders and a scarlet peaked cap. I experienced a feeling of exhilaration and was even more thrilled when he winked, intimating that girls had been known to swoon at the sight of smart young cavalrymen. Naturally 1955 was decades before the Trades Descriptions Act, but I suspect he would have disregarded such a minor obstacle. At his suggestion I sat at a table there and then and took the basic educational test, which even in my bemused state was ridiculously simple. The sergeant then made a telephone call to the surgery of a local GP and announced he had made an appointment for me to take a medical the following evening.
Eagerly I reported to the surgery at the appointed time, where the receptionist took the sergeant’s forms and directed me to the waiting room. This was very crowded and such was my elation it took some moments to realise I was the only male in the room. And then, to my horror, it dawned that all the women were in noticeable stages of pregnancy, and extremely old. They must have been getting on for thirty years old at least! Blushing deeply, for such matters were very much beyond my extremely limited experience of females, I grabbed a magazine from the table and hiding behind it, squeezed into the only vacant chair between two seemingly huge women, realising only then, to my increasing embarrassment, that the periodical was about babies and childbirth. That wait seemed endless, but at last my name was called and I gladly escaped into the surgery. Then proceedings became very much worse as to my utter dismay the Doctor was a woman - rather a rarity in those days! What was more she could only have been in her in early twenties and very attractive. In all fairness she did attempt to put me at my ease, but with little success. Smiling sweetly she instructed me to go behind a screen and strip - to remove all my clothes! I prefer to cloud over what happened next, suffice to say she asked lots of questions, peered at, and prodded, every part of me. And when she asked me to cough I could have died! After what seemed an age she allowed me to dress and escape, the only consolation being the announcement that I was fit for military service.
JOINING THE ARMY
One week later, on a cold morning at the beginning of April, I was summoned to the recruiting office and a rather bored old Major raced through a form of words which I failed to follow or understand. Suffice to say within ten minutes I was back on the pavement, now thrilled to be 23237390 Trooper Crosskill, a Regular Soldier committed to the Queen for 22 years, with an option to leave after three, my rate of pay being the princely sum of two pounds, eight shillings a week. To my immense frustration, the Easter Bank Holiday delayed the start of my newly chosen military career by one week. At long last Tuesday April 12th arrived, a bright, sunny morning - perfect weather to start my exciting new career. At Cleethorpes railway station an early train took me to Catterick Camp in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Yorkshire - I’d never been that far north before, would I fall off the edge of the world? Was not such parts inhabited by savages? Indeed I was to discover the latter was true, and each of those savages carried stripes on the sleeves of his battledress uniform!
In those days military uniforms abounded at every railway station and Darlington seemed to have very few civilians apart from a group of bewildered young men just like myself on the platform to Richmond, to whom I gravitated. We boarded the Richmond bound train and on arrival found a sergeant together with a selection of three ton army trucks awaiting. On stating our destination he directed us to a truck and into the back of it we climbed. Apart from the permanent buildings around the camp centre, Catterick Garrison was a sprawling mass of single storey brick, wood or corrugated iron buildings. At intervals, an impressive and beautifully painted name board marked a regimental barrack area, however none seemed to have a boundary fence. The truck dropped me off at a large red, green and brown sign carrying the badge and title of 7th Royal Tank Regiment - my new home and the start of my brand new career. They directed me to an administration office and after lots of endless form filling and, what I was to discover is an art perfected by the military, waiting, I found myself in an uninviting single storey barrack room with a group of other young men. We were eventually taken to a large store and, after more waiting, issued with a shapeless khaki overall, bedding and mattress. Thus loaded we struggled to our new home. Apart from being directed to the cookhouse for our first taste of army food, which we all agreed was revolting, we were then left to our own devices for the remainder of the evening.
Neither I, nor I suspect the others, slept well and we were all up well before being called. The day passed in a bewildering series of tests, exams, interviews, and extremely embarrassing medical examinations - but at least they were conducted by men. Naturally each stage was interceded with long periods of waiting, including one especially embarrassing episode where, stark naked, we stood in a line prior to submitting ourselves to a painful series of injections in each arm. The sight of those before us experiencing this was very disturbing, resulting in a number of recruits noticeably swaying and bordering on collapse. This was of course long before the days of individual disposable needles! Whilst I recall few other details, one test remains clear. When called into one room I found myself facing a white coated man holding up a white card about 12 inches square. It consisted of a circle made up of small blue circles and in this brown circles forming the number nine. The figure was so patently obvious that I suspected a catch and stared at the card for some time. He then, rather brusquely, asked if I could see anything? I replied no, only the number nine. It took much persuasion to convince him that my eyesight was fine and no, I was certainly not being difficult!
The training unit consisted of soldiers wearing the black webbing and berets of the Royal Tank Regiment, with a few wearing khaki blanco’d webbing and berets bearing that badge, the badge I so desired. We were told in no uncertain terms that this was a motto not a badge! That evening a senior soldier called into our barrack room and in addition to telling us much about army life, stated that everyone volunteered for the 17th/21st but few were accepted unless they had good reason. This was proved correct the following morning, when a dozen of us were instructed to hand in our newly issued kit and climb into a three-ton truck. We were then transported to 65th Training Regiment Royal Armoured Corps to form part of RAC intake 55/07. My vision of becoming a 'Death or Glory Boy' faded and disappeared.
Whilst the soldiers of that first unit looked like any others I’d seen, the 65th gave me my first sight of a real cavalry NCO. The cavalry have always considered themselves something special - a considerable step above Corps, Infantry, and especially the Royal Tank Regiment. That Lance-corporal of 7th Queen’s Own Hussars was resplendent, the peak of his cap slashed a la Foot Guards, the khaki battledress tailored, fitted and pressed to perfection, boots and brasses glistening in the bright sunlight. However that was not all, for whilst each regiment had uniform peculiarities, the Cavalry had the most. Instead of a unit name woven onto a coloured cloth strip on the battledress shoulder, cavalry regiments retained brass shoulder titles on the epaulettes. Furthermore, each NCO wore a regimental rank badge above his stripes, which in turn were blanco’d a gleaming white. The corporal’s uniform carried collar badges, divisional flashes, white lanyard and, on his cuff, the red badge of the Maid of Warsaw. Tucked under his arm was a three-foot riding crop. That Cavalry Corporal was an impressive sight to us new recruits, and didn’t he know it!
65TH TRAINING REGIMENT RAC
Sensibly, the Corporal made no attempt to form us into any semblance of order and allowed us to shamble behind him as he escorted us to our new home. This was a single story barrack room, one of a complex of five corrugated iron buildings joined in the centre by a washroom and toilets, which we discovered were called ablutions. The set of buildings was known as ‘spiders’. After a brief glimpse at the spartan accommodation which was to be our new ‘home’, we were escorted out, this time to a store where we received new pillows and blankets, replacing those we had returned that morning at the previous camp. Although we had no means of knowing it, the initial restful days terminated at that point. Once the bedding was deposited at our barrack room we were off again, this time to a far larger building. On entering we saw the vast area was divided by a long counter separating us from racks upon racks which reached to the ceiling, and in front a line of soldiers, the first of which tossed a kitbag to each man. In a line we shuffled along that counter whilst each soldier threw a bewildering pile of uniform and other items into our kitbags. On very few occasions were personal sizes requested, most sizes were guessed. Uniforms of approximate fit and unbelievable harshness, two pair of boots, each as hard as blocks of wood and a multitude of assorted pieces of webbing equipment, all shapes, sizes and colours, each with fastenings of tarnished brass. Anyone brave enough to ask a question generally received the curt reply, “You’ll find out.” Eventually we staggered out of a door at the further side of the stores building and, loaded down with ‘things’, made our way back to the barrack room. Then followed a rapid explanation and display of the use and purpose of each item by the corporal. Questions were ignored, or answered so quickly as to be meaningless. We were then given fifteen minutes to lock every thing away in our lockers and report outside. I was not alone in believing that fifteen minutes could not have been more than ten.
This time we were formed into three ranks and urged to march in something vaguely resembling an order in the required direction; my first indication of the military method of not informing you of the destination - not that it would have helped. Shambling to a stop and entering the large wooden hut in single file, we discovered our objective. A momentous and unforgettable experience, the stuff of legends and folklore – the army barber! There was in fact three of them, each standing proudly and frighteningly behind an empty chair. Army myth of the times claimed that Queen’s regulations stated ‘hair would be cut short but what was unseen under headgear remained the property of the soldier’. In double quick time those barbers showed there was a vestige of truth in the claim except for the bit about the amount retained under that headgear. It was frightening watching the speed of the clippers racing from nape of neck almost to crown. Piles of hair built around their feet as they raced to achieve their task. When my turn came I gazed in the mirror with horror as my hair too joined the pile on the floor. Knowing I would not be allowed to retain my precious DA (a hair style favoured by most youths of the period) the previous week I had, I thought, requested my barber to take a lot off, but what was left quickly disappeared leaving just a single tuft on the top of my scalp. I struggled to control my emotions - I looked awful!! In the matter of minutes we were outside again, all feeling a decided chill around the necks. Shambling back to our barracks to collect our newly supplied eating irons and mugs, we reformed to go to the cookhouse. Suffice to say the standard of catering could at best be described as passable. The worse aspect of all meal times was afterwards as we were required to wash cutlery and mugs outside in a galvanised trough of greasy lukewarm water containing many particles of floating food, something to which we never became accustomed. After an afternoon of further tests and interviews, together with the issue of a sheet of brown paper and length of string, we were returned to our barracks. The corporal informed us the paper and string was to be used to parcel up our civilian clothes, which should be addressed to our homes. From henceforth our dress would be denim overalls, army boots, shirts, ties and underwear. All evidence of a previous civilian existence disappeared from that moment on.
That evening we were fortunate to have former members of army and air cadet organisations in the barrack room. These ‘experts’ guided the ‘innocents’ like me into the mystic art of bulling boots. The boots had obviously been in stores for many years and were unyielding, like blocks of hard wood. Furthermore, by chance or design, the leather was covered in pimples. We were taught the art of heating the handle of a spoon over a candle and applying this forcibly to the leather, thus pressing out pimples with heat and strength. When the leather was reasonably smooth we spent seemingly every waking hour with a yellow duster (which we had to buy from the NAAFI) carefully applying small circles of Kiwi boot polish which was interchanged with circles of spit or water – hence the term ‘spit and polish’. Great debates raged as to the best method, water or spit. I found both took much effort and elbow grease. Following various periods of time and effort, we eventually produced a deep mirror-like shine on the surface of the boots, and, as we were to discover, a surface that cracked when flexed!!
The chore of bulling boots was interceded by scrubbing webbing and polishing the brass fixings with Brasso - more trade for the NAAFI. When the webbing was dry a powered substance (or sometimes in a hard block) named blanco was applied with a damp brush. Naturally application of blanco discoloured the brass which required a further treatment of Brasso, which in turn when coming into contact with blanco produced a black mark, which required scrubbing off etc. etc. This then was the major chore which occupied our time when other military tasks were suspended; periods which the army jokingly classed as free time. Plus of course cleaning windows (again using Brasso), polishing the wooden floor with a long handled heavy metal padded thing called a ‘bumper’, applying a black gunge to the room’s only form of heating, a pot bellied stove - thanks goodness we had gone before winter - cleaning toilets (ablutions), dusting, ironing, pressing uniforms, making and unmaking beds. In the post-war years the armed forces must have created a multitude of work for companies and employees producing cleaning products. True or false I do not know, but rumour had it that amongst one draft of recruits was a genuine teddy boy complete with full drape suit and carrying a guitar. When asked what he intended to do with the instrument it is reputed he replied “Something to do in the evenings.”
Goodness knows what time we got to bed on that first night but at the crack of dawn we were rudely awakened by a very noisy reveille from an NCO we had not seen before. He had us leaping from our slumbers and beds to join the scrum in the ablutions. Washing, shaving, dressing in our new uniform and denims (how rough and tickling everything was) forcing our feet into hard boots, folding sheets and blankets into a neat block called a bed pack. Collecting our cutlery (eating irons) and rushing to the cook house for a hurried meal, washing our equipment, as before, and hastening back to be ready for parade. All in an undignified and highly compressed period of time. Standing in what we considered to be a semblance of military order, most like me in some trepidation, we awaited the arrival of our corporal. Looking around I realised we had already lost much of our outward appearance of individuality. Everyone was clad in shapeless khaki denim overalls, rough shirts and ties. On our feet stiff, heavy and unyielding boots and above them stiff canvas gaiters into which the bottom of our overalls were tucked. On each shorn head was a seemingly huge navy blue beret; whilst in time we would learn how to shrink and shape this headgear, for some weeks these monstrosities would look like oversize cowpats. So much for the glamour of the military uniform!
The ring of boots on tarmac heralded the approach of our NCO and once again the feeling of awe engulfed me on seeing his immaculate appearance, especially compared to our dowdy looks. He had a huge psychological advantage over us without even speaking. What was worse, yesterday he had seemed reasonable and helpful but the second morning it was totally different. For a start his voice had increased by several decibels. The command “Get fell in.” accompanied by a stream of oaths, unpleasant adjectives and rude descriptions of us, echoed from some distance away. By the time he reached us he had our rapt attention. Taking the tallest man by the shoulder he took him to a point in front. The deafening command of “Tallest on the right, shortest on the left, move.” had us racing around like headless chickens, which seemed to put him in a towering rage. The remainder of that day passed in a similarly bewildering manner and it took a number of days before we slowly gained some semblance of looking (from a distance) like a squad of soldiers as opposed to “A set of pregnant tarts at a tea party.” In due course we were marched to the square - a vast area of tarmac constantly criss-crossed by squads of sweating trainee soldiers, each drilled by resplendent corporals and sergeants all with exceptionally loud voices who really enjoyed shouting and insulting their young charges. We soon discovered that army drill NCOs used words and terms completely removed from expressions in normal life. The ‘F’ word was used frequently in every sentence, serving as noun, verb, adjective and others probably as yet undiscovered by academics.
This then, for long six weeks, was our new life. Daily activity on the square commenced with an inspection and no matter how hard we tried nothing pleased our NCO. An apparently highly polished badge or belt buckle would be screamingly described as ‘filthy’ (or ‘manky’, which was presumably a great deal worse). Boots, which you had thought to be fantastically highly polished and looking superb, would be likened to the results of you having spent a night jumping up and down in an ‘effing pig pen’. A few stray hairs daring to peep from under a beret, could produce symptoms of impending apoplexy from him. Possibly the greatest sin, and cause of many an approaching seizure, was if anyone dared to go on ‘his’ parade without shaving. As few of us had anything resembling even the hint of real whiskers, this was very common in the first few days. With eyes bulging in faked horror the NCOs voice would build to a terrifying crescendo, allowing everyone within earshot of the square to know; “Your effing face is covered in effing bum fluff. At NAAFI break get to the ablutions and have an effing shave or find an effing pussycat to lick it off”. After the inspection we would spend the rest of the day trying to achieve the seemingly impossible i.e. performing, to his liking, something resembling a complicated military movement, with all of us achieving this at the same time.
Drill on the square was regularly interceded by non-stop vigorous activity in the gymnasium, where unbelievably fit, energetic and obscenely active men in black trousers and black and red striped jerseys had us running, jumping over things and chasing around the surrounding countryside. Each evening, mostly late into the night, we polished, scrubbed and scrapped in the barrack room, our only respite being brief visits to the NAAFI were we would drink copious amounts of tea and tuck into hard buns - we were not allowed to drink beer. Although army food was not too bad, there was never enough for hard working teenagers, and every meal was devoured in undue haste knowing late attendance at any period was tantamount to a cardinal sin. Plus, of course the detested requirement to wash your utensils outside in a scrum, using what always appeared to be the same greasy lukewarm water, always a shock to our civilian sensibilities, before returning them to your locker. For the first month we were not allowed out of camp, not that we had the time or energy, and each morning the barrack room and your equipment were inspected. With this constant routine we had no time to think about going out, even had we been given the opportunity.
As I’d never been a sporting person either watching or competing, the physical aspects of army life came as a considerable surprise. I was also astonished, towards the end of basic training, to find I had gained weight, developed muscles, and being skinny, that the muscles were actually visible. I must have been fitter, but having always enjoyed good health, didn’t particularly notice. Being healthy was advantageous, as the army had extraordinary procedures in respect of health care. Doctors, or Medical Officers as they were know, were located on units, with a large military hospital in Catterick garrison. However, should you wish to be seen by a doctor, it was necessary to be fit, healthy, energetic and up early. On reporting sick, all kit had to be packed into the kitbag and large pack, taken to the Quartermaster’s stores and deposited for safe keeping. The patient then reported to the unit medical centre, smartly dressed in battledress and boots carrying his greatcoat and small pack which contained pyjamas, plimsolls, shaving kit and other items I have long since forgotten. He would then await his turn to see the doctor (MO). The standard treatment seemed to be M&D (medicine and duties). Just occasionally he may be forwarded on to hospital. Whilst never said, the concept seemed to be that you really had to be ill to go through such procedures, which were undoubtedly designed to deter all but those in serious need. Rumour had it that only death allowed you an excuse from this rigmarole. I was to find that things were more relaxed once away from training units but still sufficient to deter malingerers. If similar procedures were to be introduced into civilian life I feel sure numbers, and costs to the NHS, would be considerably reduced. My only experience of army medicine was when someone dropped the road wheel of a Centurion tank on my foot and I suffered a fractured big toe. The MO, a short and cheerful Irishman, described it as nothing. I found it extremely painful!!
Whilst Sunday was in essence ‘just another cleaning day’ the army insisted that we parade at 1000 hours. Following an inspection the senior NCO would call the parade to attention and in a loud voice shout. “Jews, ‘Indoos and left-footers, Fall out.” Whilst I never saw any Indian people amongst us one or two others would fall out and leave us. We would then await the arrival of an officer who formally accepted the parade before requesting the NCO to proceed, who would then march us to the garrison church where we sang hymns and became religious for an hour. It took some time for me to discover what a left-footer was. On a Saturday afternoon after one month and many detailed inspections, we were permitted to go out for the afternoon and evening. Turned loose to celebrate in the local market town of Richmond. Being a garrison town, Richmond was used to hoards of squaddies, and the locals, as one, ignored us. Dressed in ill-fitting uniform and boots, the RAC cap badges proclaiming we were the newest of the new, we would wander around the town, always under the eagle eyes of Military Police who would pounce with delight on an unsuspecting, or uncaring, soldier with the nerve to remove his beret, even if only to scratch his head. Like herds of rutting stags, or perhaps more descriptively, sheep, we would walk up and down until going to the first house at the single cinema. After the show we would find what we felt to be a discreet location and enjoyed a paper of fish and chips, and afterwards, if funds allowed, a pint of beer, before catching the bus back to camp.
Although not appreciated by us at the time, we had the good fortune of not having to undertake rifle drill. In fact during the whole of my army service I never once handled, nor fired, a rifle. Instead we were taught pistol drill, a skill which was only required when mounting guard. One further advantage of not having rifles was the matter of discipline. On the square an instant punishment was the requirement to double (run) around the barrack square, we were told infantrymen were routinely required to undertake this whilst holding a rifle above their head. The major reason why we did not have rifle drill in training was because a .303 rifle was too large to use and store inside a tank, thus they remained an infantry weapon. For tank crews, the personal weapon was a .38 pistol, with the exception of the wireless operator, who was issued with a Sten gun. As I was destined to become a signaller, the Sten became my personal weapon on schemes and, like everyone who had the misfortune to handle one, I learnt to curse the monstrosity. The Sten had been mass produced in vast quantities during the war as a cheap and compact weapon. Although compact, it was cumbersome, unreliable and prone not only to jam but commence firing of its own volition! I never handled one until reaching the regiment when it was demonstrated. You never trusted a Sten, especially when loaded. In practice they were found to be of greater danger to the user than the enemy and were later replaced by the Sterling sub machinegun, a weapon issued after my departure.
At the end of six weeks, the army deemed we were trained and everyone was informed of the trade for which they had been selected. In my case I was destined to become a Gunner/Signaller. Some forty plus years later I obtained copies of my army records and whilst little was of any great interest, they provided my first opportunity of reading the opinion of the assessor who interviewed me and recorded his judgement. ‘A pleasant youth of good general appearance. He is fairly intelligent, an average scholar and is up to the standard for crew training. He expresses a preference for active employment.’ Today, in retrospect, I consider those words a fair assessment, but, I’m sure I would have been most hurt to have seen them at the time. Like most teenagers I had a high opinion of myself! Those records of my service detailed the numerous training courses undertaken during those three years, the majority, of course, being associated with progressive stages in AFV gunnery and signalling. Whilst all were perfectly normal considering the purpose for which the army employed me, they were of no practical value for later civilian life. However, the records also showed that on 26th March 1956 I passed the army 3rd class certificate of education. Whilst this was a prerequisite for promotion to an NCO, that one achievement was the only academic feat I gained in life.
After lunch on a Thursday afternoon, in our best uniforms and after much bulling and numerous drill practices, RAC intake 55/07 formed on the barrack square for a passing-out parade, ironically accompanied by the band of the 17th/21st Lancers, the only occasion when I came anywhere near them. I felt immensely proud and pleased that my mother had decided to attend the parade and transport me home afterwards. However that gratification rapidly diminished as, whilst standing in the ranks, I was horrified to observe a large black Austin car drive slowly across the hallowed ground of the square and stop conspicuously near the small group of visitors and officers at the saluting base. From the car emerged my mother and a friend. I was even more shocked after the parade when, answering the call of “Them’s wots got parents ‘ere ger orf ter see 'em.” I marched smartly to the VIP area and arrived just in time to hear my mother say to the Colonel, “Now then young fellow, how's he getting on?” The embarrassment, I could have crawled into a Woodbine packet and died!
Recently the media have carried many reports of the bullying of recruits at military basic training units in this country. This rather surprised me and made me reflect on those first weeks of my service. I thought long and hard, and decided that I and my fellow trainees had not experienced any bullying. Then it occurred to me that perhaps we had! Whilst never receiving anything resembling physical force, any action by us reflecting inefficiency, disobedience or similar which incurred the wrath of an NCO would be immediately rapidly dealt with by that worthy. Without fail he would address us directly with words appropriate to the situation i.e. “You are a horrible scruffy and idle little man. What are you?” To which we were required to spring to attention and respond thus; “I am a horrible scruffy and idle little man Sergeant.” We accepted without question that the NCOs remarks were put to us at the top of his voice with his face two inches from ours, in our case made worse as he was a lover of onions, and that there was every likelihood that you would be ordered to run around the parade ground, or similar, before reporting back to request his permission to rejoin the squad. The fact that we accepted this demeaning treatment without question must have been a result of the discipline instilled in 1950s youth, perhaps encouraged by the use of the cane during our schooling a few years previously.
Often, when people mention military service, the rider is frequently added, “It makes a man of you, just what the youth of today need.” A very true sentiment and very apt. However, considering that prior to joining the army I had no idea of how to scrub floors, polish brass, clean windows, darn socks, sew buttons and undertake many similar tasks, tasks at which I later became proficient, I wonder why the achieving of these abilities is never included in that rider?
I enjoyed seventy-two hours of home – bliss - food and being spoilt by my mother. I soon discovered, like others serving Her Majesty, that the standard greeting on meeting friends, and this occurred on every leave; “Hello, nice to see you. When are you going back?”, which was guaranteed to take the edge off any get together. The luxury of wearing my own comfortable clothes and shoes rather than boots, made certain that I did not arouse the passions of members of the opposite sex by being seen in army uniform. However, even when dressed in my best at the dance hall, my cropped head proclaimed my new occupation to all. Late on Sunday night, with some degree of sadness and reluctance, I returned to Catterick and my new home in the Gunnery Wing. Bright and early on Monday morning my trade training as a tank gunner commenced. At last I was introduced to a tank, a Centurion Mark V, and actually climbed on and into the vehicle, I suspect we were all equally thrilled and excited at the experience of playing with real army toys! I quickly settled down, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of the Gunnery Wing whilst making sure I achieved the coveted oil stained beret of real tank crews. Very little time was spent in the classroom environment, most days passing in the tank park and the indoor small-bore ranges. In these huge sheds was situated a row of half a dozen dismounted, and specially adapted tank turrets, each with a framework supporting a .22 rifle above. This contraption enabled it to fire .22 bullets rather than real shells, the targets being a selection of small rubber tanks positioned on a huge sand-table. When seated in the gunner’s compartment, the vision through the periscope type gun sight was very much like the real thing. This then was more like the life I had anticipated when volunteering for the Armoured Corps and signing on. Whilst I have long forgotten almost everything I was taught about tank gunnery, I can still recall the name of one very tiny screw secreted within the breach block of the Centurion tank gun: ‘The screw retaining intermediate firing needle withdrawal lever’. Should this fiddly little item be accidentally dropped into the confined space of the turret floor everything stopped whilst the culprit struggled to retrieve the screw, generally with much reaching and squirming in the dark.
On the final week of the course we were transported to the RAC gunnery ranges at Warcop in Westmorland for a few days. There, in real tanks, we actually fired those 20 pound rounds across the range area. The term ‘Shells across the fells’ had a certain ring, albeit an exceedingly noisy one!
After six weeks, which ended with many in-depth examinations and tests, I was informed of my success in attaining the exalted trade classification of Gunner III and that I’d been selected to join 3rd The King’s Own Hussars in BAOR Germany. However, I was horrified to be immediately informed that having not attained the age of eighteen; I was too young to go abroad and would remain in Catterick at the 65th to undertake training in my secondary trade of signaller. To my utter disgust this entailed a move to another part of the camp and into the Wireless School for a further six weeks. I experienced a surge of hope that evening on learning that the 10th Hussars were stationed in Hampshire, so my age would be of no concern it they sent me to them. First thing in the morning saw me scurrying to the orderly room, where I requested a reallocation to that regiment. Unfortunately the orderly room corporal was himself a 3rd Hussar, who immediately took my request as a personal affront and refused to even consider my plea. Later that day I left the Gunnery wing with my former trainees for one week’s leave, bitterly disappointed that whilst they were destined for departure to their regiments, on return I was fated to remain at the training regiment. This also meant I had to continue wearing the RAC cap badge rather than the badge of my destined regiment like a real soldier. In due course I returned and commenced my wireless training.
For reasons unbeknown, Signallers considered themselves superior to other tank crew members and my extra service and gunnery qualification cut no ice. Once again I was required to start at the bottom. The training was fully classroom orientated, theoretical, academic and bordering on mathematics and it was only during the final week that we were actually allowed to get into a tank to experience using the wireless set in the actual confined conditions. Each day would be spent at a desk copying copious notes into exercise books, just like being at school again. On my eventual discharge from the army I was required to sign the official secrets act. It would be pleasing to hint that that document is the reason why I have given few details of that wireless course. Truth is, most of the points either passed above my head, or were speedily forgotten!
In the depths of my memory are hazy recollections that wireless waves travel through the air like waves at sea, with peaks and troughs. A major feature of a signaller’s trade was to ascertain the correct height an aerial needed to be to receive the strongest signal. Whilst the concept for the ideal radio aerial would be a horizontal line strung between two posts, this was of course impractical in a tank. As a result we had to accomplish complicated sums to find out the theoretical height. As the whip aerials on tanks were a maximum of twelve feet, the extra distance was achieved by passing the signal from the aerial through a gadget called varyometer, a device filled with coiled wire which increased or decreased the aerials length. For me this was an evil form of mystery and black magic. The main radio in a Centurion was the 19 Set, which required netting on to the correct frequency by adjusting two dials to receive the strongest signal. When this was achieved (initially with much sweat and swearing) the two dials required to be carefully locked in four places on each dial using a penny, which was not issued! The only interesting part of the course was being taken out in the back of one ton trucks containing a wireless set, to practice radio communications. Most of the time was spent on the North York moors, but we did enter Whitby and Scarborough which allowed us to look at girls! As readers may have gathered I was not impressed by my attendance at that course! However, to my utter surprise, I attained good marks and a high pass which destined me to be a signaller during my first years.
It was during the period of trade training, gunnery and wireless, that we were required to undertake guard duty, which was an absolute bind. Dressed in best battledress, boots and full webbing, all highly bulled and shining, you reported to the guardroom for guard mounting parade. After a detailed inspection by the orderly officer and pistol drill to ensure weapons were unloaded, the guard was dismissed to the guardroom where each man was allocated a period of duty. The guard period, night or day, was divided between wandering around for a two hour duty ‘stag’ and in-between attempting to rest for the four hours off duty in the guardroom. This took place on a bed without mattress or any form of covering on the metal springs. For the actual guard duty we were armed with a pickaxe handle, a torch, a smoke canister (for which no one explained the use or rationale) a whistle and of course your pistol. The pistols used were for drill use only, sans firing pin and purely for appearance. Those two hour periods were exceptionally lonely, and at times scary, for as the barracks were not fenced, moor land sheep wandered about at will. To be patrolling around the deserted buildings in the dark hours before dawn, then turn a corner and scatter half a dozen sheep, caused many a youthful heart to pound in sheer panic. Naturally after a night’s guard duty you changed into working dress to face a full working day with no rest until bedtime.
It was during the period of my wireless training that the IRA commenced attacks on military bases, fortunately for us, in the south of England. This illegal and unsporting action caused the ‘powers that be’ at the War Office to review and change the procedure for guard duty. It must have dawned on them at these high powered and high-level talks that there were young soldiers at Catterick camp performing guard duty with guns which were of no use against an armed IRA attack. Therefore, procedures were hurriedly put into effect which changed things. Orders were issued that from immediate effect the guard would be supplied with real pistols. What was more, the Guard Commander was to be issued with six rounds of ammunition, and this was to be secured in the guardroom safe. No one thought to explain to us, nor did we dare ask, the course of action we should take in the event of an IRA raid on the 65th Training Regiment. Amongst ourselves we made an assumption of the action we should take if finding ourselves in such a situation. Should an intruder reply to our challenge of; “Halt who goes there?” in what sounded to be an Irish accent, we would request him to stand still. We would then run to the guardroom, request, and sign for, one of the six rounds of ammunition, then run back to shoot him! Childish, when considering the horrendous savagery the IRA committed in later years, but a true illustration of the conditions, mentality and the lack of clear direction which existed in 1955. Fortunately, the only trespassers we experienced remained the nomadic sheep, still guaranteed to frighten the life out of a homesick young trooper wandering through deserted buildings, each of us now convinced that every noise was wild Irishmen about to attack him!
In due course, my training was completed and prior to going on a week’s leave at home, I was issued with the insignia of 3rd The King’s Own Hussars, then part of the British Army of the Rhine - BAOR. On my return, there followed an arduous week confined to the drafting wing, where every minute of every waking hour was occupied with cleaning, pressing and polishing each item of our kit prior to departure from Catterick. Seemingly sadistic NCOs inspected us many times each day. Each delighting in throwing offending items across the room. Some years ago I watched a TV documentary covering the military corrective training establishment at Colchester. I was amazed, the conditions were luxurious and the staff exceptionally considerate in comparison to conditions I experienced during my week in the drafting wing of the 65th in October 1955.
Regularly on Sunday mornings, three-ton trucks containing drafts of newly trained troops, left Catterick for Northallerton railway station for onward transmission to armoured regiments scattered around the world. On the morning of 16th October one of those drafts included me. One member of our group (we were convinced the selection was based on the standard of his equipment rather than his common sense) was appointed acting Corporal and made responsible for us. Crossing London from Kings Cross to Liverpool Street was his first test - at least he managed to ask for directions. From there a troop train took us to Harwich where we were loaded onto an unbelievably crowded and pitching troop ship, to the Hook of Holland where we joined a ‘coloured’ train into Germany. When our “guardian” announced we would get off at a station before the one specified on his joining instructions, we were past caring. Needless to say no one displayed any sympathy towards him when the disgruntled driver of a regimental three ton truck eventually found us and conveyed us to the regiment. I then settled into my new career at Epsom Barracks, Iserlohn near Dortmund, North Germany, serving Queen and Country and, like most of my colleagues, counting the number of days to my eventual release.
Something worthy of mention illustrating the inflexibility of army mentality of that period occurred at the end of that signalling course. Two National Servicemen had almost identical surnames, Black and Blake. Both were from London but they were as different as chalk and cheese, Black was single with a devil may care ‘Jack the lad’ attitude. Blake, quiet, withdrawn and shy, had been married just two weeks before commencing his National Service. The poor soul was desperately in love and missing his wife every waking minute. Where Black joined in all aspects of fun, Blake spent every spare minute sitting on his bed writing letters to her - he was one of the few who received regular mail. When, at the completion of training when regiments were allocated, everyone was amazed to find the outward going Black was destined to join the 10th Hussars in an almost suburban Hampshire, whilst poor home loving Blake was allocated to the 7th Hussars stationed on the other side of the world in Hong Kong. A posting which meant no UK leave for the remainder of his service. Despite requests and pleading by both to be allowed to exchange their postings the army refused. No one was ever able to explain the logic of that decision.
3RD THE KING’S OWN HUSSARS
After the rigors of the artificial life of the training regiment, B Squadron Third Hussars was far more relaxed and civilised. Epsom Barracks, originally constructed for Hitler’s army, were luxurious after the spartan conditions at Catterick, with each Squadron occupying its own three storey accommodation block, with central heating and double glazed windows. One especially welcome task was to report to the regimental tailor with my two suits of battledress for them to be altered to fit closely and smartly. Very soon, I was also to see a very different side of regimental life. On our first morning we noticed a ‘buzz’ of talk and activity and learned that El Alamein day was taking place in a couple of weeks. Whilst aware El Alamein had been a decisive battle in the North African campaign, it meant very little to me – for about half an hour. We were soon informed the regiment had played a major part in the action, losing 47 of its 51 tanks. El Alamein was a Battle Honour and now a regimental holiday for the 3rd Hussars, which again meant little, apart from the thought of gaining a day’s respite from duty. No one explained what actually happened, apart from mentioning a football match took place during the morning. Groups seemed to gather to discuss detailed plans but, as the new boy of the troop, I was not included. So, the actual day dawned with me in total ignorance apart from being aware it had been eagerly awaited.
I was now used to being woken by trumpet calls but that morning we were rudely woken by raucous blasts, together with the pandemonium of wild drumming. The whole regimental band had started the day with a bang – literally! It is impossible to recall events in any chronological order, for the world had seemed to have gone wild. Fancy dress, noise, people rushing to and fro, the explosions of thunder flashes, water-fights and much more. When the Third Hussars celebrated El Alamein day, everyone knew. I was to discover that provided nothing was injurious to health and property, anything could happen, and did! An exceedingly good time was had by all. Everyone was very soon drenched with water as every fire hose and bucket was put to good use. Squadron took on Squadron with water and bags of flour, no one ‘won’ they simply joined and turned their joint attention by ‘attacking’ another target. I recall being part of a small group on the third floor of our barrack block, filling condoms with water then manhandling these huge and unwieldy objects out of a window in the hope they scored a hit on any unsuspecting passer-by. About mid-morning everyone surged to the sports field for the football match, officers versus sergeants. Naturally each ‘team’ and their supporters were attired in eccentric dress and armed with a range of ‘aids’ and strategies to deal with their opponents. I don’t recall ever seeing a football in the ensuing melee which ranged on and off the sports field and around much of the barracks, but great fun was enjoyed by all.
As the ‘game’ roved around, frequently ambushed by marauding groups, the wildly cheering crowd swept along behind, in front and amongst the players, everyone enjoyed the fun and high spirits. I was told later that instructions had been circulated around all units in the garrison that the Third Hussars were busy that day and had temporarily withdrawn from the British Army of the Rhine - so keep clear. But, somehow a Military Police Jeep arrived, and most unwisely entered the barracks. Naturally when spotted, the news spread like wildfire and the jeep was ‘attacked’ by all. I watched from an upstairs window and observed the flight of those two terrified MPs pursued by a wildly excited crowd, obviously scenting blood! The policemen managed to escape seconds before the main gates were slammed shut. The football match ended, as every year, in an honourable draw by lunchtime, and momentum slowed as all ranks streamed to the cookhouse where a celebratory meal was provided. How the cooks managed to produce such a magnificent spread in such circumstances was a mystery to me. Officers and senior NCOs attended, serving, eating and joking with all. Surprisingly beer was provided with no constraints on quantity. After lunch the activity stopped to allow everyone to recover. Mid afternoon, without being told, clearing up commenced. That evening an all ranks ‘smoker’ took place in the gymnasium when more hair was ‘let down’. The following day, apart from a drum head service to remember those lost at the battle, El Alamein day became a memory for another year.
Things had hardly settled back to normal when I experienced an unexpected break for about six weeks. For some reason, never explained, I was detailed to accompany our troop Corporal, Don Headmore, to take a Centurion tank, for major overhaul at a REME depot somewhere in Germany (not a secret location, just that I’ve forgotten the name). Our charge was secured onto a tank transporter and with us sitting in the turret there followed a slow full day’s journey. Fortunately it was a lovely day and we arrived late evening at the huge REME depot where they provided a meal and over-night accommodation. The following day Don left to ascertain details of our return only to come back with the surprising news that we were to remain with the tank. “Truly amazing”, he said. We remained with that tank doing absolutely nothing for what must have been well over a month. Any query Don made to REME staff as to how long we were to remain was met with a shrug and the comment that that was up to our regiment.
For the whole of the period we did no work or anything resembling duties, occupying our days going for walks, chatting to anyone willing to spend time with us, drinking tea and generally idling away our hours. It was a great life as Don was good company, and I had the opportunity to learn much about life in the regiment, procedures, duties, schemes, knowledge he had gathered over his service, which was almost at an end. He also pointed out that we could not be in the workshops at a better time, for it appeared we were to miss the annual admin inspection. The details and amount of chores and duties this entailed had me fervently hoping we would be ‘forgotten’ until it was over. In fact that was the case. We lacked for nothing in that extraordinary military time warp. Accommodation was provided for us in a disused cell, we got up when we liked, attended no parades nor reported to anyone. We could not have been forgotten completely by the regiment, as we received our pay each week. We didn’t contact them nor they us. Don’s philosophy was, ask no questions, the army know what they are doing! During the week before Christmas we discovered the unit closed completely for the holiday period, military and civilian staff departing on leave, leaving German civil security staff guarding the establishment. Because of this, and I suspect a touch of conscience, as well as the need to be back in familiar surroundings, Don telephoned the regiment who made arrangements for our return – the tank remaining with REME for some considerable time. I frequently wondered what would have happened had Christmas not arrived, how many months would have elapsed before someone in the Third Hussars missed us. As it was, no one questioned, or explained, the reason for our enforced absence.
During the 1950’s, the cold war era, life in the British Army of the Rhine passed in a regular pattern, dependant on the season. During winter months we remained in barracks, undertaking trade training, assorted instructional courses and daily maintenance in the Tank Park to ensure an operational state of readiness. November was occupied by preparation for the annual inspection, vehicles, buildings, accommodation and equipment. To the adage, move it or paint it, could be added; or hide it! Naturally we figured most prominently with numerous practices and rehearsals for a full regimental parade before an inspecting military bigwig. Also in that period, that most important feature occurred - home leave.
The summer months were occupied with testing our skills, the period when the British army put everything into practice and we tested ourselves and equipment in operational conditions. We departed the comfort of our barracks and went on what was known as ‘schemes’, wide ranging exercises on the vast training areas of north Germany. For many weeks we lived under canvas in Squadron leaguer areas, leaving their relative comfort for varying periods to chase around at high speed in our tanks, or sit in them immobile by design (or when broken or bogged down), for long periods doing we knew not what. Most of the time we were completely lost, even my later promotion to troop Corporal and tank commander did nothing to provide an insight into the overall picture. Miles of dusty wilderness with few landmarks were more than a match for my capability at map reading.
During my period with the regiment we were equipped with Centurions – Mark Vs & V11s. Having experience of no other types of tank I cannot make comparisons. However in that year, 1955, 3rd Troop B Squadron was selected for conversion to the Conqueror troop and on 6th May took delivery of these brutes. Whilst I gather initially everyone felt envious, by the time of my arrival in October, the envy had altered to varying degrees of pity. Although the Regimental Journal of April 1956 proclaimed Conqueror to be; ‘undoubtedly Britain’s finest and newest piece of equipment’, it was in fact a disaster. Perhaps the politest term I heard was “a military abortion”. Larger in every respect than the Centurion, it was an ill designed beast in which virtually nothing operated successfully. The main gun required a separate projectile and charge which, in the cramped confines of the turret, was an almost impossible feat to load. Although the stabiliser controlling the Cent’s main armament, could, at times, be temperamental, that feature on the Conqueror was unpredictable, and on the few occasions when operating correctly, it was seldom in conjunction with a fully functioning engine. Everything was bigger and heavier than the Centurion and involved hard physical labour for the crew. Gaining access to the engine compartment of a Cent’ was a three-man job, two lifting the heavy engine covers whilst one was inside traversing the turret to enable them to undertake this and even though we were fit youngsters, this took a lot of effort. However, that task was far more difficult for Conqueror crews and, due to constant mechanical problems, a chore which was required with far greater frequency!As promised by that recruiting sergeant in Grimsby, in due course I was issued with my Number one dress walking out uniform. This was almost exactly as he had described, navy blue serge, brass buttons, twin yellow stripes on the outside of each trouser leg (the legs cut closer fitting than those worn by infantry regiments), chain mail epaulettes and a scarlet cap. However, what that uniform did have, which was far better that that of the 17th/ 21st Lancers (and as all Hussars knew, Lancers being lesser than Hussars in every respect!), was a scarlet stand collar. Naturally, in addition to wearing it at the times specified for regimental duties, this uniform was also worn to great advantage at dances on home leave.
SCHEMES – PLAYING AT SOLDIERS
Arriving at the regiment in October meant that I did not experience schemes until the Spring of 1956. Again referring to the Regimental Journal, we commenced at Haltern ‘where we experienced tropical heat and dust conditions’. From there we trained at Soltau and Reinsehlen before proceeding to the tank gunnery ranges at Hohne. As they all looked remarkably similar, this detail was lost on me. For weeks prior to leaving barracks for these schemes, we were kept extremely busy with most activity centred on the tank park. Maintenance and preparation of the vehicles and loading equipment into the stowage bins. The concept of allocated storage was excellent, in the event of a tank being ‘knocked out’ or broken down the crew could be transferred to another and know exactly where items could be found. Great in principle but not in practice. Large metal bins where fitted to either side of the turret and every nook and cranny inside the turret was allocated for the storage of something. Whilst the proposed contents was stencilled in the inside, or outside, it was generally found to be impossible to fit that article into its allocated home and as a result we crammed items where they would fit, thus defeating the master plan. Every conceivable item that might be required (and much that was not) was dusted down, or more often oiled, then packed into wooden boxes and loaded into the ubiquitous three ton trucks.
Early on our day of departure, the peace and quiet of the local civilian population was rudely interrupted as tank engines were started and revved to warm up. The current term of ‘noise pollution’ would have been exceedingly apt when applied to the cacophony of sound created by those Centurion tanks, accompanied by the squeals and shrieks of metal tracks on concrete as each tank was manoeuvred. Whilst this was taking place, the signaller of each crew was at his radio inside the turret, receiving and fine-tuning to a signal transmitted by the signaller in the command tank. When the strongest signal was established, the signaller would lock his radio set to that frequency, a procedure know as ‘netting in’. In specified order the tanks of each troop made their way from the tank park to form a long column reaching back from the barrack’s main gates. When all were formed in convoy, a thankful silence would at last descend as engines were switched off whilst crews left their charges for a well deserved breakfast. After breakfast, at a given time, each crew would board their vehicle and on command the deafening noise of engines would restart. On receipt of the appropriate signal, the convoy, preceded by a police escort, would leave the barracks and drive through the town centre of Iserlohn to the railway station.
Iserlohn was a small and picturesque medieval town located some twenty miles south of Dortmund. The town centre consisted of cobbled streets and attractive buildings, mostly half timbered with walls painted in pastel shades, some with external artwork and decoration. It appeared to have suffered little during the war. It seems incredible today that a convoy of 48 tanks, each of fifty-two tons, together with many three ton trucks, were allowed to drive through the town, it does not bear thinking about. But, in 1955, the war had only been ended for ten years and although the British army was no longer one of occupation, that mentality still existed. As our barracks was on one side of the town and the railway station the other, clearly any thoughts of alternative routes did not arise. Also should the driver of a Centurion accidentally clip a lamp post or similar, it was simply a matter of a compensation claim.
Our arrival at the railhead and loading became a duty I learned to hate. One by one the tanks drove onto those flat railway wagons, which bucked and jolted with the weight, goodness knows how many wagons there were, but certainly a great number. As the Centurion was wider than the flats, each track overhung by a couple of inches, and as the driver could not see, he had to be guided on and off, a task I loathed. Carefully walking backwards along those flats, which bounced under the tank’s weight, the guide was required to constantly signal changes of direction to the driver, a frightening experience, and I was not alone in being terrified that I might be the cause of the tank falling off! On reaching the allocated flat and before the tank could be secured with heavy chains, a German railwayman had to grant permission. He would check the overhang each side, frequently making you reposition the vehicle for a seemingly negligible amount. Guiding when reversing was especially frightening and although I never saw a tank fall off a flat, the stories of such disasters were legion. On reaching our destination, the loading procedure was the same but in reverse. More agony!
Once safely off the train we again proceeded in convoy to drive to the Squadron leaguer area. These were always in wooded areas in which the four-man open fronted tents were lashed to convenient trees. Each of the four Troops would be grouped together within the Squadron area and each would be required to dig their own rubbish pit. These pits were a matter of honour, with great rivalry to achieve the deepest and smoothest sided. Ten or twelve feet deep was the norm, with the final diggers requiring to be dragged out with ropes. It was a regular occurrence for the unsuspecting or unwary to fall into a pit in the dark. Another task was ‘planting’ thunder boxes, or in civilian parlance, installing toilets. Dig a hole, place a wooden box fitted with a toilet seat on top and no base over the hole, then surround it with lengths of Hessian fixed to wooden stakes. These were generally erected in pairs, comradeship as opposed to privacy! The Regimental cooks established their catering areas and seemed to work wonders with the compo rations supplied. The efforts of the professionals always tasted far better than our own efforts when out on exercise.
Once our ‘permanent’ camp was established, the military exercises began. These were of varying duration, ranging from one day to a number of days or a week or more. I was not alone in feeling that the purpose and objectives of these exercises didn’t bear much resemblance to the plans on which we had been briefed prior to the start. It was also noticed that within hours of commencement the junior officers rapidly assumed expressions of concern; worry; bewilderment; panic; dismay; abject misery or frustration. However, by the time they reached the rank of Captain and above they all appeared to have mastered the art of looking nonchalant and laid back, even though these worthies still managed to become lost! The weather seemed to be either hot and sunny, which enabled the tanks to create vast clouds of fine black dust that got everywhere and made us filthy within minutes, or heavy rain. Tanks were not waterproof and rain meant we were quickly soaked to the skin and remained wet for varying periods of time until we slowly dried naturally.
Rain also created vast tracks of glutinous mud into which the Centurions rapidly sunk and became helpless until assistance arrived. The Regiment had a permanent REME detachment attached who demonstrated truly amazing skills in keeping our vehicles operational. They were equipped with specially modified Centurions, the turret and gun removed with all sorts of wonderful attachments installed which very speedily winched, or pushed, us clear of our predicament. My main memory of these schemes was of being constantly filthy - dirty hands, grit between your toes, in your mouth and nose, ears filled with dust. Removing your beret and goggles would expose a not much cleaner pair of eyes and strip of forehead. Protective helmets were unknown for tank crews and generally we wore normal denim overalls, berets, boots, web gaiters and waist-belts, together with, as I only noticed when searching for photographs, ties! We did have heavy tank suits for cold and wet weather, but even they never coped with the incessant rain.
Food was rather haphazard when on schemes away from the established leaguer area. Each crew was supplied with boxes of the ubiquitous compo - concentrated tinned rations provided in cardboard boxes, the contents based on rations for ten men for one day, or one man for ten days. The filling of each tin varying from good to passable, with Mutton Scotch style and Irish stew generally disliked by all. In the field great bartering sessions would take place to obtain what you preferred, thereby defeating the nutritionally balanced diets the ‘experts’ had devised. Fortunately, whatever the weather conditions and facilities, we never lacked for tea. In addition to the main engine the Centurion had an auxiliary power plant, know as the auxgen, this was used for charging the tank’s batteries and power systems. Most importantly though, the auxgen powered a copious boiling pot, or to use the correct military term; a vessels boiling. It was the main part of the signaller’s role to operate this vital piece of equipment and provide tea for the crew. Into this pot of water, when it looked more or less hot, would be tossed a handful of tea (literally thrown in by hand, hygiene being a dispensable luxury on schemes). Handfuls of sugar and cans of condensed milk were added and all brought to the boil. After stewing this brew for some time mugs would be dipped in and circulated; this brew was always enjoyed by all and declared nectar. I don’t recall us ever having sufficient water to wash-up afterwards, tea dregs and dust no doubt adding that ‘little something’ to the taste. The return to the leaguer area and more passable degree of cleanliness was always very welcome. I recall one occasion when permission was obtained for the Squadron to visit a local swimming pool. Before being allowed onto the trucks, the Squadron Sergeant Major checked everyone to ensure no one was taking soap! At the end of each scheme the camp was struck, everything loaded, rubbish collected and deposited into the pits before they were filled. It was always surprising how soon the place looked deserted, the only indications of our presence being trampled grass and bare earth. Whilst we were well conscious the SSM would inspect the site with eagle eyes, it was also a matter of squadron pride that he should find nothing untoward.
When chasing around these North German plains on exercise, the gunner had the disadvantage of being totally enclosed within the turret, very aware of every bump and every wallowing action of the tank. At the time helmets had not been deemed necessary for tank crews and everyone received cuts and bruises, especially the gunner. I was fortunate, as spending my service as a wireless operator, allowed me to stand up with head and shoulders out of the turret. Unfortunately, when firing, especially on the move, all hatches were frequently closed, with space becoming a problem. Hampered by wearing headphones connected to the radio, I was required to load the gun with little room to remove the long and heavy rounds from storage bins and insert them into the gun’s breach. Breathing soon became difficult as the turret immediately filled with cordite fumes after firing each round (later Centurions were fitted with smoke extractors, but we had mark V’s without such a luxury). My hearing has long been poor, with tests establishing the cause was due to the noise in the confined space of a Cent’s turret when firing took place. Despite this, we considered ourselves more fortunate than the infantry who seemed to be forever marching cross-country carrying bulky equipment and weapons. However, there was one thing I never understood. When mobile, tank crews were forbidden to be more than waist level out of the tank, but on exercises, a platoon of 32 infantrymen were crammed on the engine decks and when mobile going cross-country they not surprisingly suffered a rough ride. We were constantly stopping as one fell or leapt off, having touched the exposed exhaust pipes. As an example of the heat generated from these exhausts, potatoes inserted under them were cooked in less than five minutes!
Whilst willing to confess my map reading skills bordered on nil on those vast training areas, I did pride myself on reasonable proficiency in the classroom and in ‘normal’ situations. During one scheme, I forget where or when, I reluctantly found myself seconded as signaller in a halftrack vehicle. These war time American relics were retained as mobile command vehicles. The front section was wheeled, the rear tracked part was a ‘box’ containing a table, a bench either side plus the signaller and radio. Maps covered in clear plastic were pinned on the table and inside walls. The vehicle was manned by the driver, me – the signaller, and a junior officer. During an exercise senior officers entered the ‘box’ and controlled the action. In time honoured military fashion, no one had explained to me the reason for the journey. In bright moonlight, with the officer in the cab map reading, we set off and shortly joined a road. Peering through the gap dividing my compartment from the cab I watched until seeing something recognisable then pin-pointed our location on the map. I was a little concerned that we were actually travelling on ‘our’ side of the East/West border. Eventually we rattled over a plank bridge crossing a river and the only bridge I could find crossed the border into East Germany. Tales abounded of troops being arrested for such occurrences. Double checking my findings I voiced my concern. In that laid back drawl affected by his type, the junior officer assured me he knew our position. A mile or so further I again voiced my fears, this time our driver slowed down, suggesting Sir might like to double check. He did, but I noticed a lack of confidence when he assured me I was not to worry. I was relieved that we saw no one and more so that our route now included many left turns until we at last re-crossed a river. The only river on my map was that which was the border between East and West Germany, but the anomaly was never mentioned!
The greatest delight of returning to barracks was to be once again clean. The luxury of soaking under a shower without giving any thought to the water supply, to be able to sit down to a ‘proper’ meal at a table inside a real building, to dress in civilian clothes, and it was noticeable how many wore white shirts to emphasise their sun tan. It was a total delight to leave behind, albeit temporally, the primitive lifestyle and resume a normal life - well as near to normal as the army permitted.
The end of the scheme period, and our return to barracks, marked another period of different activity. Not only were we required to rid the tanks of the mud, fir cones, grass and debris collected over the period of rough living, we faced the C.I.V. I’ve long forgotten the meaning of those letters but a rough translation was; cleaning, maintenance and bulling of our tanks prior to a detailed annual technical inspection; presumably to ensure we had not lost any and they were returned to something resembling the required condition should the Eastern Bloc hordes decide to invade.
In 1956, a new Troop Sergeant was appointed to 1st Troop. The Sergeant’s attitude and management style made him immediately popular. His acceptance was in no small way aided by a magnificent moustache, a sweeping handlebar specimen which greatly impressed his youthful charges and was unlike any I, or most of the Troop, had seen before and which was viewed with awe. Within days an unanimous decision was reached that we would all produce similar moustaches. However, after a week, it came as a great disappointment to the majority that a ‘tache’ needs a maturity which few adolescents could match, consequently most were unable to produce anything resembling ‘real’ whiskers. I had about six hairs one side and fewer on the other. As most faced a similar problem, the craze soon died. It did however make me decide that one day I too would have a moustache. As it turned out, I was to be in my mid-twenties before the desire for whiskers was achieved and maintained.
In the following autumn the Suez crisis occurred with orders received for the Third Hussars to prepare to mobilise. At the time I was with a small group, in two Austin Champ vehicles, undertaking a radio exercise. Bowling along a wooded road we were surprised when a regimental dispatch rider pulled alongside and flagged us to a halt. His announcement that the regiment was going to war and we were to return to barracks was treated as a joke at first, but led to great excitement and speculation on return to barracks. On our arrival at Iserlohn we found unbelievable scenes of frantic activity and swiftly became involved in the flurry of administration and maintenance. We were soon engaged in attempting to pack equipment and belongings into the storage space allocated on the tanks – an impossible task which we never mastered. However, after a few days, the panic and action suddenly stopped as the movement order was cancelled. We were bitterly disappointed – oh the innocence of 1950’s youth - we were totally unaware of the political activity which had led to the debacle. We were very soon convinced that the Suez episode had been an enormous ploy by the Quartermaster’s department to regain our carefully horded stocks of ‘buckshee’ kit! Another aspect of Suez was the recall of reservists. Naturally these men were not impressed to be whisked out of civilian life and careers and back into the army, mostly into regiments with which they had no connection nor friends. This resulted in an unsettling period for those poor souls and much disruption to our normally comfortable regimental family life.
However, the Suez crisis did prove to hold an unexpected bonus for me. A friend wrote informing me that because of the emergency, driving tests had been suspended; the regulations had been relaxed to enable those who had held a provisional driving licence for six weeks to be able to drive unaccompanied. This kind friend had also enclosed an application for a provisional licence. The completed form was sent by return of post and as a consequence I had held a provisional driving licence for the required period by the time I arrived home on leave. After a few lessons I felt capable of driving my mother’s Austin A35 car on the public highway and I then spent as much time as I could at the wheel. As a result, on my return to the regiment I felt completely confident that I could pass a driving test and went to enquire about taking one with the transport section. From that point I experienced a very frustrating period of delays, always some excuse why I was to return at a later date, which was then unavailable and to try again later. Some weeks later, following yet another refusal, I chanced to meet one of the Troop officers of B Squadron, 2nd Lieutenant Blower, a very friendly and amiable guy. “You look fed-up and depressed” he observed, “what’s the trouble?” I explained what had happened and the number of excuses I’d received. He smiled. “No problem, I’m acting Squadron Technical Officer, I can take you for a test”. My heart leapt. “Yes please Sir, when Sir” I excitedly asked. “Well, I’m rather busy at the moment”, he said. My heart plummeted, yet another excuse and disappointment. Then he said; “No, can’t make this morning, it’ll have to be about two thirty this afternoon”. I was elated and arranged to meet him at the vehicle park at the agreed time.
Although I was full of that confidence experienced only by the young and had many hours driving experience on a small Austin car, my eagerness and excitement evaporated at the sight of a seemingly huge, flat nosed three ton truck, against which the immaculately clad subaltern waited. With a growing feeling of panic I hauled myself up into the cab. Climbing up beside me Mr Blower announced, “when you’re ready off we go”. Finding a gear in the gear box, something akin to dragging a slippery ferret from a can, we lurched forward. The journey was a terrifying nightmare. But to my surprise Mr Blower neither spoke nor told me where to go, simply sitting in the passenger seat nonchalantly twisting and tapping the riding crop favoured by all junior cavalry offers. I proceeded in what I suspected and sincerely hoped would be a quiet area, and succeeded in producing loud shrieks of protest from the elderly truck as I crunched each and every gear change. More by the grace of the good Lord than my driving skill, I lurched along almost deserted roads until the officer suggested we turn at the approaching junction and return to barracks. Narrowly missing a collision with one of the gates of the barracks I thankfully swung the blunt bonnet of the vehicle into the compound, more or less alongside, well within a few feet, of the kerb. Feeling embarrassed and depressed I thankfully switched off the engine convinced I’d made the proverbial cock-up. Mr Blower looked at me for some seconds then said: “I’d hate to drive far with you, but as that’s very unlikely, I’ll pass you.” Utter relief and exaltation. In due course I received the appropriate army form confirming my competence to drive which was swiftly forwarded for my civilian driving licence. I have been forever grateful to that officer and was delighted to learn, many years later, that he had retired from the army as a Colonel. He had well deserved that promotion, if only because he had enabled me to obtain a driving licence.
Each winter period we eagerly looked forward to home leave. For regular soldiers based in Germany this was taken in either a block of two three week periods or one of six weeks. Movement from the barracks to Liverpool Street station in London was by military train to the Hook of Holland, followed by an overnight crossing on a troop ship (generally a cramped and rough crossing) then a train journey to Liverpool Street station. From there a rail warrant funded a normal train to your home. Although, of course, we didn’t realise it, we were fortunate that this was before Dr Beeching reduced the scope of the railways. Leave periods were generally spent at dances and pubs, all highly educational to a deprived teenager seeking female company, generally with little luck whatsoever. The only females to welcome us were our mothers, and we enjoyed being spoilt. Time always rushed by until we made reluctant farewells and the same journey was undertaken in reverse.
Prior to one leave I had become friendly with the orderly in the regimental medical room. With an exaggerated wink he had suggested I called in before getting onto the leave truck – there were no such luxury as buses. Taking me through to the deserted treatment room, he unlocked a cupboard and dragged out an outsized cardboard box. Imagine my surprise to see it was full of individually packed condoms, or as they were known at the time, Durex or Johnnies. Each was contained in a small brown envelope printed with the maker’s name and on the reverse the words: ‘Do not leave lying around streets and parks, it may offend people’. Extracting a large double handful he held them out to me with the words; “Take these and have a good time mate.” I was horrified, I had no girlfriend and the opportunity to use even one was totally remote. However, male pride forbade refusal. Unfortunately, as my case was already locked and on the leave truck, I had nowhere to put them. Without thinking I asked where I could put them. He must have thought me a right idiot for he started to explain the anatomical requirement in detail! I swiftly rephrased my question. The reply was more what I wanted. “In your map pocket.” The perfect place. On the right leg of battledress uniform was a large pocket and into this I crammed the packets, causing it to bulge conspicuously. Thanking him I left and endured an embarrassing journey home, terrified of being stopped by the Military Police. How could I have explained to them my having such a large number of contraceptives. Arriving home I hid them in a drawer in my bedroom which I hoped my mother would never open. They remained there untouched until the end of my leave, at which time I wrapped my unused gift in a newspaper and pushed them to the bottom of the dustbin. Naturally on my return to barracks I claimed to have taken too few!
Winter time in Germany produced far colder weather than we were used to, making us appreciate the substantial accommodation, the central heating and double glazing. When duties returned to normal in 1957, I was allocated to a higher level wireless course. After a couple of weeks in classrooms we loaded ourselves and equipment into three Austin Champs and set off into the countryside, a part of rural Germany which gave the appearance of being unchanged by time, the medieval atmosphere aided by the now threatening weather. As darkness and driving snow reached us, we entered a tiny and antiquated hamlet which looked like the set of a horror film. Obtaining permission to spend the night with our vehicles in a huge and dilapidated barn, we erected our small tents inside by fastening the ropes to rusty farming implements. Once established and sheltered a little from the freezing elements, it was almost cosy, especially as we had brought paraffin heaters. After a hot meal, lots were drawn (well we students drew lots, not the instructors) to decide who remained on guard whilst the rest of us fought our way through deep drifting snow to the pub. German pubs are not like English pubs, especially in the primitive parts of Germany of that period. The expression, undiscovered tomb, was appropriate, and what is more is was a cold one. In addition, the landlord clearly had no love of the British Army, probably dating from his experiences in the first war.
We had not been there long when a guard arrived expressing concern about the drop in temperature and amount of snow entering the barn. We returned to find the snow was getting deeper inside and, despite the paraffin heaters, the barn was well below freezing. Concerned about the effectiveness of antifreeze, it was decided the vehicle engines must be run each hour and the heaters placed by the vehicles, not the tents. That night was never ending. It was bitterly cold, with the noise of engines running each hour and the barn doors were opened frequently to clear the air. I doubt if anyone slept, and we were up and well ready to go as soon as the grey, snow leaden dawn crept over the desolate scatter of buildings. Just as we were about to leave we stopped, surprised by something I’d never seen before, nor since. Slowly, in the eerie silence, a hearse approached drawn by two horses, black plumes nodding on the head of each. A solitary man was hunched on the driver’s high box, behind which was a glassed section containing a coffin. An eerie and chilling sight. I know I was not the only one pleased to be heading back to barracks.
In May 1957 I was promoted to Lance-corporal, and by a set of fortunate circumstances, gained my second stripe to full Corporal the following August. Both promotions gave me new responsibilities and different duties, the second promotion giving the greater. I was now on the rotas of Guard Commander and Orderly Sergeant, the latter immediately following the former. What little sleep was available to members of the guard was non-existent for the Guard Commander as he was required to be awake at all times. Whilst there was a daily Duty Officer, apart from guard mounting parade and attending for the last post, it was rare to see any more of that gentleman. In essence, unless something major occurred, I, as a lowly Corporal was in overall immediate charge of everything which happened within the barracks. Luckily nothing ever did happen during my duties, but this was uppermost in my mind.
The Orderly Sergeant’s duty period began on cessation of that of the Guard Commander. The guard was dismissed and the guardroom handed over to the Regimental provost staff. The OS function covered a range of duties at regimental level. That most of these emanated directly from the Regimental Sergeant Major was guaranteed to keep you on your toes! Like every man holding that unique appointment of power, RSM Scot ensured he met every requirement the job demanded and upheld the far reaching mystique and reputation attached to it. Although of medium stature, Mr Scot more than compensated for his lack of height with his bearing and reputation. When out of doors, the sight of that ramrod straight figure, even at a distance, ensured your shoulders went back and you emulated his smartness, until he was out of sight. Some maintained there was much truth in the rumour that he could see around corners and even through buildings! I later learnt Mr Scot was exceptionally sociable and very good company during periods of relaxation, a phenomenon I saw only once. I discovered it was the custom at Christmas for corporals to be invited for drinks at the Sergeants Mess and it was a great privilege to enter that holy of holies. It was an exceptionally pleasant experience and the RSM was completely relaxed. However, at the end of the prescribed two hours, the senior ranks gently let it be know that the RSM thought it time we left.
Because Mr Scot was the RSM I was always ultra careful in his presence and, truth be known, rather scared of him. Whilst I didn’t dislike him, I was always pleased to be out of his presence. It was only when obtaining copies of my army records some years ago that I was amazed to find a report, in Mr Scot’s handwriting, recommending my promotion to full Corporal. I felt rather guilty for never being able to express my thanks to him.
The final duty period of the Orderly Sergeant required you to spend the evening in the NAAFI until closing time, and then ensure an orderly dispersal. I was pleasantly surprised to be offered drinks by many troopers. As it was in barracks and the duties of the Orderly sergeant clearly stated alcohol was forbidden, I declined. I thought it was because I was popular, but a colleague somewhat cynically suggested it was just an attempt to get me drunk and not close the bar! After closing, and a check that all was in order within the barracks, the final task was to go to the guardroom and handover the white cross-belt, which denoted the OS role, to the Guard Commander. It was his task, generally relegated to a guard, to clean and polish the belt for his tour of duty the next morning. Having started normal work at 0800 the previous day, taken over the guard at 1800, and ended that duty at 0630, before then commencing as Orderly Sergeant until 2300, with a normal day’s work to look forward to at 0800 the following day, my only thought after that spell was bed.
In addition to regimental duties, my promotion to Corporal also elevated me to the post of Troop Corporal, third in command of the Troop. This in turn carried the exalted (?) role of tank commander. I feel few within the Squadron would dispute my claim that I was ill equipped for this task, being incapable of map-reading on those vast, featureless tank training areas of North Germany. Map-reading is easy in normal circumstances where you orientate a map in relation to contours, a church, wood, roads etc. However, the training areas where the British army operated were vast tracts of undulating mud or dust (dependant on weather conditions) or dense forests. The result was me being permanently lost, which was excellent training in becoming adept at talking my way out of trouble! One night, when we were moving in a convoy operation with no lights, apart from the glimmer of a convoy light on the rear of each tank, dawn brought the horrible realisation we were positioned at the back of a column of tanks of a different regiment, with the remainder of ‘B’ Squadron behind me!
On another occasion, in daylight, we were completely lost and alone in what was rapidly becoming apparent as being outside the training area. Reaching a small bridge carrying a military sign proclaiming a 20 ton limit (ours being 52) my driver quite correctly, flatly refused to proceed any further in that direction. It was shortly after this when an Austin Champ ‘jeep’ arrived carrying an extremely irate Brigadier who understandably laced into me before showing me our correct position on a map and explaining how to reach that point. It was at this juncture he produced a notebook and demanded my name and regiment. Now, on schemes, it was custom to take steps to cover yourself for such situations. This was achieved by the simple method of smearing liberal amounts of grease across every distinguishing military sign on the tank, which, within a few miles dust and muck, made us anonymous. Furthermore, we mostly wore a rolled cap comforter to protect our heads from bumps. In addition to the protection they provided, these did not carry the regimental cap badge. Because of these factors I therefore had had no qualms in introducing myself as Corporal Jones, 4th Troop C Squadron 4th/7th Dragoon Guards, who we had met earlier in those parts. No, I feel it would be fair to confess that the role of Tank Commander was not entirely my forte!
Amongst my many memories of that period, I feel two are worth recording. On a couple of occasions the regiment welcomed and hosted our Old Comrades. Many activities were put on for them, together with social events and lots of beer. Everyone made sure those old soldiers had a great time and in turn they delighted in relating experiences of the years before I was born. One evening I listened enthralled to an old guy who had joined the Third in the 1920’s when they were real Cavalry. His tales of mounted training were fascinating. From having never been near a horse, to riding, fully equipped, over jumps without stirrups after six weeks training, filled me with awe. When mentioning that I would never dare to get anywhere near a horse, never mind riding one, especially without stirrups, he smiled and told me the concept from day one was to ensure recruits had a greater fear of the riding master than the horses. Considering such things, together with stories related by those who had served in the first war, still makes me thankful for the accident of birth which enabled me to grow up without experiencing wartime military action. In those days Majors and senior NCOs all wore medal ribbons of the second war. One thing which was very noticeable was that those with decorations refused to discuss how they had won the award. I suppose the gruff words of one Staff Sergeant summed it up when asked how he had won his Military Medal, “because I fired before the Jerry; otherwise it might have been him getting a medal and me with a white tombstone and the words about dying for my country.”
During 1957 orders came from on high that the 3rd Hussars would move in September from Iserlohn to York Barracks, Munster. Naturally we never discovered why. Of course, this pending move disturbed the general routine, creating much additional work and upheaval. The regiment was very much like any family, and a long period in one home had naturally led to the acquisition of much ‘valuable and well needed’ clutter. Orders were issued that surplus (or what was known as buckshee) equipment was to be handed into the appropriate stores. Not unnaturally this command was interpreted at all levels as ‘That instruction can’t possibly apply to me/us”, especially as what had been given up for the Suez debacle had taken a great deal of replacing. Buckshee kit which was ‘yours’ was a matter taken very seriously by the army. The move of a military unit differed from that of a civilian move inasmuch as in those day the army would consider the expense of hiring a removal contractor ridiculous. You have three ton trucks get on with the job! That move from Iserlohn to Munster was an eye opener. Working parties became a daily feature of life, but what was revealed was amazing.
Most items were packed into wooden cases by the staff of the department and watched over by senior NCOs, but some items would not go into boxes. The Sergeant’s Mess seemed to have sufficient drums, spears and cowhide shields to equip a Zulu army and a huge pile of lances (“But the regiment never had lances Sergeant!” You ain’t seen ‘em lad, get ‘em in the truck smartish.) I also suspect the amount of boozetransferred would have shocked HM Customs & Excise. At Munster I helped to supervise the unloading and storage, in cellars below the new Sergeant’s Mess, of many items of historical value, mostly once owned and used against the regiment in distant wars. Piles of swords, flags and similar, and German Pickelhaube helmets from the First War which must have been worth a fortune. When the cellar was almost full we built a false wall of wooden boxes to hide this booty! Although I never helped at the Officers Mess, reports indicated their treasures were of even greater value and interest. Eventually, all was transported to the new location and we said goodbye to Iserlohn.
Annually, in November, the regiment was subjected to the annual Admin inspection and parade. This was a major event in the calendar, the day when a very senior officer, complete with retinue, arrived to spend a few days in barracks inspecting every nook and cranny of regimental activities and function. Our move to Munster had been timed to ensure this event could take place without deferment. Each year the period before the event entailed many weeks of work and preparation. In true military fashion everything, down to the most insignificant detail, was bulled, polished, painted or hidden; tanks, vehicles, equipment, buildings, grounds, procedures, state of readiness and of course, troops. This frantic activity was interposed by rehearsals for the big parade of the year. At each I had stood in the ranks, admiring and envying the role of the escorts and markers, each clad in the full dress uniform of the regiment and carrying swords. As the final admin parade of both my service with the colours and, as explained below, the existence of the Third Hussars, approached, I made a momentous decision. As a Corporal I was now eligible to take on the role as an escort and, ignoring the greatest commandment of the army, never volunteer, I decided to do just that and volunteer.
Unsurprisingly there was little competition and I was accepted. There were eight of us and following a pep talk by the RSM on the honour of undertaking the role we were dispatched to the stores for kitting out with the appropriate uniform - a never to be forgotten experience. The old stores Sergeant escorted us into the deepest depths of the building and, following an exaggerated performance, selected a key from a massive bunch and unlocked the door of a room. Stepping back he allowed us to enter. We were greeted by a glorious array of priceless military history. Full dress Hussar uniforms, everything dating from pre 1912. Racks of tunics and overalls (trousers), piles of leather Wellington boots, boxes of spurs, rows of black fur busbies, stacks of swords and scabbards, plus piles of cardboard boxes containing an assortment of accoutrements. Everything in one enormous and fantastic jumble. With the obviously heartfelt reluctance of one instilled with the army storekeepers maxim that; ‘stores is for putting things in, not taking them out’ he invited us to try on items until a satisfactory fit was found.
The 19th century full dress Hussar uniform is impressive, especially to the teenage eyes of those accustomed to rough khaki battledress. The contents of that store must have been bordering on being priceless, yet all was in an amazing jumble. It was a question of going through the huge pile of leather Wellington boots to find one left and one right to fit and trying on the overalls, tunics and busbies until something was comfortably yet tightly fitting. Then came the time to hunt through the boxes to find accoutrements. Two matching spurs, a sword-belt and slings, sword, cap line, Busby plume (which would have made a rough but smart shaving brush) a cap bag and chin scales. All under the eagle eye of the Sergeant who insisted in carefully checking each article before recording it on a form which you signed, accepting the warning of the dire consequences faced should anything be damaged. Clasping these newly found items of sartorial elegance, we returned to our barracks to dress and preen ourselves. How heartbreaking that we had no females to show off to!
We very soon discovered that dressing was not as simple as anticipated; we needed a helper. Goodness knows how the Hussars of that century had managed. The knee high leather Wellington boots had to be buckled into navy blue overalls, the outside of each leg of which was decorated with a double yellow ‘tramline’. Placing your feet into each boot in turn you then hoisted up the trousers, mostly reaching to your armpits and secured them by normal grey army braces. The short navy, bum freezer tunic, both back and front decorated with intricate yellow frogging, was fastened with loops on to round ball brass buttons. Unfortunately, both tunic and overalls were made of a heavy and stiff material which defied the efforts of a normal iron. A unique feature of the Third Hussars was the scarlet stand collar. A canvas waist-belt fitted under the tunic from which dangled white blanco’d leather straps onto which was buckled the steel sword scabbard, which hung low requiring it to be always carried. The short black fur Busby supported the Third’s garter blue ‘bag’ on the right side (each Hussar regiment having its own distinctive colour), a white plume at the front and brass chin scales. To ensure the Busby was not lost when charging on a horse, yellow cap lines clipped under the bag, dropped down your back before passing around the neck in a prescribed fashion, and clipping onto the front of your right shoulder. When dressed (a slow and complicated business even with a helper) and parading, with spurs-a-jingling, you could not help but feel a most superior being! Rather surprisingly, apart from the sword, spurs, buttons, chin strap and boots there was very little to bull. At a designated time the following morning we paraded at the office of the Regimental Sergeant Major where that ‘demigod’ closely inspected us in turn. Having stressed the importance of our role, he detailed us to specific tasks, mine and another corporal, was to escort the Drum Horse.
Each regiment or battalion of the British army has a distinctive ‘Colour’ a Union flag containing regimental devices and battle honours. A prime example being the annual Trooping of the Colour by her Majesty’s Foot Guards on Horseguards in London. Cavalry regiments have a smaller device called a Guidon, a suitably emblazed maroon swallow tailed flag. However, the Third Hussars were truly unique; they never had anything as ordinary as a flag, we had a pair of silver kettledrums. Replicas of a pair of drums captured by the regiment at the battle of Dettingen, these, carried on a large horse ridden by a Sergeant Kettle-drummer headed all parades. Although the drums were never sounded, when on parade they were accorded full military honours.
When the regiment was formed on parade and called to attention the order was given; “March on the Drums.” As the band commenced to play, the Drum Horse marched on accompanied by an escort with drawn swords on either side, and was accorded full military honours before taking its place before the regiment. Like so many things, this had always looked to be such an easy job, and largely it was. Unfortunately, apart from being taught rudimentary sword drill no one told us anything other than maintain a close position either side, and slightly behind the kettle drums. They never even took us to the stables to meet and familiarise ourselves with the horse, and when we did eventually meet, the Kettle-drummer certainly told us nothing about the horse, or horses in general. Nevertheless, we quickly learnt. Although we were a cavalry regiment, that first rehearsal entailed being the closest I had ever been to a horse, apart from the one on my cap badge!
Now it does not require a great deal of common sense (had we chosen to consider such matters) to realise that a horse carrying a man, two large silver drums and festooned with lots of jangling military accoutrements as well as being required to stand still for a long period, was going to get pretty bored. Perfectly understandable, but something never contemplated by those two teenage NCOs acting as escort on either side of the beast that year. As the rehearsal continued, the horse justifiably became uninterested, moving too and fro and stamping those huge hooves, each foot resembling an oversized dinner plate surrounded by a mass of white feathering, and champing at the bit and frequently shaking his head. Furthermore, in addition to wearing heavily festooned harness, under its chin there was a long and heavy plume which lashed out to each side with each shake of its head. As the horse naturally exhibited his boredom, we escorts nervously shuffled clear each time it moved in our direction. Despite gruff muttered commands from the Sergeant Kettle-drummer to stand still, we were constantly rearranging our positions like the proverbial spare parts at a wedding. The whole episode proved to be a most nerve-racking experience. My fellow escort and I were extremely happy when snow started to fall two days before the parade. The following day the snow became heavier and started to drift. Although they worked hard, this defeated the valiant efforts of the snow clearing teams. On the morning of the parade the barracks resembled a Christmas card, snow deep and crisp and very uneven. It was only an hour or so before zero hour when the parade was cancelled.
Although this was a great relief, as it got me away from the horse, it did however present a very acute problem. As the programme decreed that I was to be in full dress uniform for the day, I had followed the old soldier’s trick of only pressing the sleeve of my best battledress which was to be on show in my opened locker. As the cancellation of the parade was at the very last minute, there was neither time nor opportunity to change into battledress never mind press the uniform correctly. The alternative, the sight of a single NCO in full dress standing by his bed, would look especially conspicuous. It was therefore with great embarrassment that I confessed my plight to the Squadron Sergeant-Major. Although SSM Beans was a well-liked and highly respected personality in B Squadron, his patience must have been sorely tested by me that morning. Even so his expression did not alter and his immediate response was; “Keep that outfit on and when the Colonel and General and his retinue arrives stand at the back of the welcoming party. As soon as they enter the first room don’t move but wait until they move out, then get in there quickly and remain out of sight until they leave the building.” I often wondered if that General, or anyone, especially the Colonel, ever noticed and questioned why ‘B’ was the only Squadron to have a full dress escort in the welcoming party – and why he disappeared immediately afterwards!
Many years after that alarming experience with the drum horse, whilst attending a regimental reunion with the ‘new’ regiment, as an old comrade, I was chatting to an old chap who had joined the 3rd Hussars prior to the Second World War. The conversation touched on ceremonial duties and I mentioned my aborted escort duty with the drum horse. With a chuckle the old timer announced that he could relate a far more disquieting occasion. The parade had followed the usual well rehearsed format with everything proceeding smoothly when disaster struck. As on many occasions over the years, the drum horse suffered the usual boredom and started to fidget. However, at one point whilst shaking his head in an up and down motion, the animal’s cheek crashed down onto the point of the escort’s sword. Squealing in pain the beast shook its head and reared, blood spraying from the wound. Unsurprisingly the totally unexpected action caught the escorts, and rider, completely by surprise. As the escorts scattered in each direction, the rider dropped the drumsticks and clasped the drums for support as he attempted to control the animal, a somewhat difficult task as the reins were attached to the stirrups. Whinnying in pain the frightened horse took off directly ahead with the poor Kettle-drummer clinging on for dear life. Whilst these drums of the 3rd Hussars carried many battle honours gained over centuries for fearlessly fighting against enemies in many parts of the world, the unexpected sight of a charging horse heading directly at them caused understandable concern and consternation. I can well imagine that many choice words were uttered by all ranks on that occasion!
THE RUN DOWN TO DEMOB…
Like most national service men, and short term regulars, my thoughts in the autumn of 1957 turned to the delights of civilian life in the now imminent future. Release procedures and final leave meant I would be leaving the regiment in early March 1958. But I then discovered it was possible to obtain attendance at an appropriate pre-release course connected with my civilian employment, should something be available. The ‘old sweat’ network soon explained how to work the system, with the result that an old friend of the family obliged with the necessary paperwork. In due course, this was accepted and approved. That action advanced my departure from the regiment to early January. However, what I had thought would be a relaxing run down period was abruptly transformed by two events.
Apart from a feeling of sadness and dismay, shared by everyone, I considered the government’s decision to streamline the forces by amalgamating the 3rd and 7th Hussars, to form The Queen’s Own Hussars, was of little consequence, as I would be long gone before the amalgamation took place. Or, at least that is what I thought. What did not occur to me was that the decision to merge the regiments meant recruiting immediately ceased with vacancies remaining unfilled. In addition career minded people immediately started to apply for transfers to ‘safer’ regiments. Consequently whilst regimental numbers rapidly decreased, the number of duties did not, leaving increasingly less hands to perform the normal routines and duties. This ensured these obligations came around with greater frequency. As if this rude interruption to my life was not sufficient, the announcement was also made that our Colonel in Chief, the late Princess Margaret, was to make her final visit to inspect the regiment early in the coming year. That decision firmly removed all hopes of enjoying an easy and carefree last few weeks of my military service. Such hopes, sadly disturbed by the effects of the pending amalgamation, now completely vanished, and my time was fully occupied in the age old army pastime of bull; polishing, painting and hiding. What is interesting to record is that of the four Hussar and two Dragoon regiments to amalgamate, the Hussars later merged again in the 1990s to become The Queen’s Royal Hussars.
Whilst, as stated, regimental duties now came with increasing frequency, as December 1957 progressed everyone eagerly awaited the publication of the list of duty NCOs for the Christmas and New Year period. A nod from my fellow corporal in the squadron office had me racing there to discover my fate. Taking a deep breath, I studied the closely typed list, my pulse racing as I failed to see my name on Christmas Eve, Christmas day, Boxing day. Had I been missed or forgotten! Then I spotted myself; New Years Eve - Cpl Crosskill A, Piquet Commander Munster. Piquet Commander? I had never heard of such a thing and queried this with my administrative colleague. His response had my heart sinking to my boots. It appeared that as Munster was the home of many regiments of the British army, each was required to provide an NCO and two soldiers to afford back-up to the Military Police at anticipated periods which may lead to trouble. So why New Years Eve? He left me wondering for a seemingly long time before announcing that amongst the regiments in the garrison were two of Scottish infantry. The truth dawned before he could delightedly point out that New Year was the occasion when Jocks hit the booze and fought anyone, and everything, in sight. I was horrified; the news certainly spoilt my Christmas. All I could do was hope they had selected two huge troopers to support me!
At 2130 hours on that New Year’s eve of 1957, dressed in the required greatcoat and webbing, and with great trepidation, I made my way to the guardroom to discover two young troopers smaller than I and each in greater apprehension. Even the driver of the Land Rover was hardly above minimum height and weight. Hoping I appeared far more confident than I felt, we set off for the city centre. Parking outside the main railway station I surveyed the area and was surprised to find few men looking remotely like squaddies. Things improved slightly when what was clearly a piquet from another regiment, fortunately not from north of the border pulled up beside us. Their corporal got out and came to me; we compared notes, deciding to stick together for mutual protection, but neither getting much comfort from this. After ten minutes a Military Police jeep arrived and for the first time in my service I was pleased to see them. A burly sergeant climbed out, and in that measured pace used by policemen the world over, approached us. He was a surprisingly pleasant guy and I found myself confessing concern about the Jocks. His news that both regiments had been confined to their own barracks for the night was the best news I think I’d ever heard. My final New Year’s Eve in the army passed soberly and fortunately very uneventfully.
A BRUSH WITH THE INFANTRY
As my demobilisation date approached it was custom in the regiment, after the final release interview, to remove all regimental insignia from the battledress with the exception of stripes, rank badge and cap badge. Whilst this was tinged with some sadness, it was exhilarating to be seen demonstrating to all that you were on your way out. Even so it was not without regret that in late January of 1958 I made my farewells to 1st Troop B Squadron 3rd The King’s Own Hussars. Arriving home to commence my ‘pre-release course’ I found myself seconded to the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment depot in Lincoln – well someone had to own you in the army!
On the morning of my first day in this capacity, I drove over to Lincoln to report as required. It never occurred to me to even consider wearing uniform. Parking close-by I walked to the imposing main gate of the red brick Victorian barracks and found myself in a very different world. I knew the infantry attached far greater importance to things military than did the cavalry, but was ill prepared for my experience that day. To gain entrance to the formidable barracks entailed much studying of passes and my joining instructions by a Lance-corporal of the guard, who questioned me closely. All this occurred under the watchful eye of two rifle carrying sentries stationed at either side of the gate. Once satisfied I was not an enemy of the Battalion and a genuine soldier, the corporal give directions for me to find the orderly room and allowed me entry into the barracks. The walk made me realise that that decision three years previously to volunteer had been very wise. When eventually finding the orderly room, I was dealt with by a most sociable Sergeant who wished me luck on my training course and suggested it would be perfectly in order to telephone him at the end of the month’s attachment rather than report back in person. After enjoying a welcome cup of tea and a chat with him, I took my leave and made my way back to the main gate. The more direct route he had provided had me circling the barrack square and I watched in wonder the smartly drilling troops. Everything was far more military and noisy than the relaxed life of the Third Hussars. Having to show my papers again, to the same Lance-corporal, took me rather by surprise. If this was the life of an infantryman I was even more convinced that three years in an armoured regiment was one of the few sensible decisions in my twenty years of life.
As those enjoyable weeks passed I decided to have one final fling before demobilisation. Instead of telephoning, as suggested by the sergeant, my mind was made up, I would report back to Lincoln in person and in uniform. Mother re-sewed what was required on to my battledress whilst I pressed and polished. I was sorely tempted, but resisted, to whiten my stripes like the infantrymen. But I could not resist carrying the regimental riding crop purchased as a souvenir at Catterick when allocated to the Third, a souvenir obtained purely for display at home as a memento, certainly never to be carried within the regiment! On this occasion, the sentries at the gate stared fixedly to their front, nor was I delayed at the guardroom. A cursory glance at my paperwork by one of the same rank evoked a mournful look together with the comment, “Lucky sod getting back to civvie street.” On my route to the orderly room, although now knowing my way, I made a point of frequently asking directions, delighting in the number of times “Corporal” was repeated and gleefully accepting infantrymen springing to attention when I spoke to them. Luckily the Sergeant I had met on my first visit was not in the orderly room and I was able to lord it over the youthful Lance-corporal.
I now feel rather embarrassed about the childish delight I gained showing off that day and I was brought back to reality later that week when reporting to the RAC Centre at Bovington camp for the actual demob. What had been anticipated as a sinecure proved not to be so. I should have realised the army would ensure they retained the last word and whip hand to the very end. The stated few days were occupied in similar trivial pursuits to those early days in the army; interviews, medicals, returning kit, filling in forms and answering meaningless questions. But the crunch, unmentioned but hinted, was that any difficulty or disturbance to their routine could result in a vital document being ‘mislaid’. As demobilisation only occurred on two days each week that meant delaying your major quest for freedom! One item required before I departed was my signature on a form of the Official Secrets Act. Which may be a good reason for anything I have left out of this tale!
Although I reluctantly paid my thirty shillings to become a life member of the 3rd Hussars Old Comrades prior to leaving the regiment, I only attended one reunion in the early 1960’s with The Queen’s Own Hussars, the ‘New’ regiment. I felt an absolute fraud, far too young to mix with and be considered an Old Comrade. In the early 1990s another ‘reorganisation’ merged the QOH with the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, a regiment formed by the amalgamation of the 4th and 8th Hussars at the same time as the QOH was formed. The new regiment was named; The Queen’s Royal Hussars. As a result I automatically became a member of the newly formed Regimental Association. I attended and enjoyed two reunions, now of an age to be a ‘real’ old comrade, no longer looking like a new boy.
Now, half a century on, I look back on my memories with nostalgia and not a little surprise at how naive and unworldly I was. I still have a blazer, without a badge, but I do possess a garish regimental tie, and still do not have a gorgeous girlfriend – even the most loving of wives can be very unreasonable at times.