"Once a Marine"

by John Best.

I joined the Royal Marines on the 17th August 1954 at the tender age of 17 years.
My enlistment term was for "seven years with the Colours and five years on the reserve" this being the minimum term you could enlist at that time. Recruit training in those distant days was divided into five groups, the first group being the induction training into the corps and I commenced group one training at the RM Depot Deal. Here the recruit was kitted out and undertook a vigorous daily routine of drill, PT, swimming, basic field craft and weapon handling, education, and lectures on corps history.

I remember distinctly being shown how to do my "dhobi" and darn socks by my squad instructor. Being Royal Marines, all terms used were nautical so the floor became the deck, the wall, the bulkhead and the cookhouse the galley to name but a few. After being fitted out with our No 2 uniform which was carefully tailored, we were allowed "to go ashore" after six weeks. Getting past the gestapo at the guardroom was the hard bit as we had to sign out and in. No leave was allowed during the training period other than at Christmas and Easter when everything closed down. Before passing out and leaving the depot all recruits had to pass the recruits education and swimming test, the latter of which consisted of three lengths of the baths, jumping off the top level of the diving platform and staying afloat for three minutes, all dressed in a denim suit, fortunately I could swim well, some others couldn't and the plaintiff cry of "swim swim" resounded around the pool as the PTI fended off with a large pole those wishing to give up the effort and make for the side of the baths.

I passed out from Deal on the 24th November 1954, proficient in drill and basic field craft, fitter than I had ever been in my life. My mother came down to watch my passing out parade and was very proud of her son as he marched behind the best military band in the world. Group two training was carried out at the Infantry Training Centre Royal Marines Lympstone which is now the Commando Training Centre

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630 C.S. Squad Royal Marines Deal - 24th November 1954
An Email to John Best will identify Marines in the above picture

November was not a good time to commence Group Two recruit training which was carried out at The Infantry Training Centre Royal Marines Lympstone, then a bleak hutted camp, a relic of the 2nd World War. Today there is fine modern brick built barracks, now known as the Commando Training Centre RM. Training at the ITCRM consisted of the usual parade ground drill, map reading, PT, swimming augmented by instruction in the infantryman's weapons of the day, the Lee-Enfield .303 rifle, Bren gun, Sten Gun, Mills hand grenade, 2 inch mortar, 3.5 inch rocket launcher and Energa grenade, (which was fired from the end of a rifle and which the skill was not to loose your trigger finger.)

Long days spent on the ranges, usually in a pool of water, practising our marksmanship and refining the use of weapons that may someday save our lives. Field craft, such as map reading, camouflage and making a bivouac from natures bounty, (augmented by the meat skewers or six inch nails and a ball of string we had been advised should always be with us.) Long days spent "on the march" increasing in length each time, digging trenches, living in the field for days at a time, practising section attacks and negotiating the assault course completed the training schedule.

I went home on two weeks leave for Christmas 1954 and was most reluctant to leave my then girl friend and a warm bed for a slit trench with six inches of water in the bottom. And so we completed our infantry training, having lost a few along the way due to sickness and unsuitability. We passed out from Lympstone on 24th February 1955, once again a parade and again the band played on. My memory of this time is of always trying to get my clothes dry and always being hungry.

Group Three of the RM recruit training was the six week commando course. This training was undertaken at the then Commando Training Centre RM Bickleigh Camp which was also the home of 42 Commando RM which had recently returned to the UK from Malta.
Bickleigh Camp was then another hutted camp relic from the 2nd World War except here the huts were constructed of breeze blocks with asbestos roofs as opposed to those wooden walls of Lympstone. Once again the old huts have been replaced by modern barracks. My squad embarked in two three ton lorries for the journey from Lympstone to Bickleigh, not for us this time the luxury of Great Western Railways.


At some distant point from Bickleigh Camp, in the middle of Dartmoor, we were invited to leave the warmth of the lorry and join a wiry grim faced Sgt who invited us to remove our gloves as "we wouldn't be needing them at Bickleigh" The shape of things to come. We marched the rest of the way, the kit bags had the luxury of the ride in the lorries.
Bullshit was out of the window, blue uniforms not needed here, dress full time was denison smock and denim trousers, cap comforter, puttees and specially issued "scramble boots" which were army pattern boots with clover studs. The only exception was we were expected to "dress for dinner", which meant khaki shirt and tie and battledress top denim trousers and blue beret. Training again consisted of field craft, camouflage, weapon handling, more advanced map reading. Added was unarmed combat and self defence. Basic cliff climbing and use of the dory, a small flat bottomed boat used for beach landings. Also we learnt the correct way to disembark from a LCI (Landing Craft Infantry).
I have fond memories of the ride down the river in the flat bottomed bitch.


The physical tasks increased and the assault course was replaced by "the Scramble Course" which had to be completed in 30 minutes or you did it again. The "Tarzan Course" in which you negotiated your way around ropes strung twenty feet above the ground and which at one point crossed the river in Bickleigh Vale where you were you were required to do a full regain after hanging by your arms full length. I don't recall anyone escaping the drop in the river. Night compass marches became regular events in the evenings, and "speed marches" three of these, four miles (to be completed in forty minutes) six miles (to be completed in sixty minutes) and the killer nine miler (to be completed in ninety minutes) Outside of these times was not an option and I recall the moans as we progressed. The response of the wiry Sgt was "I don't know what your complaining about, I do this every six weeks" Everything of course was carried out in full fighting order carrying your rifle.
To add to the grief several of the squad had their rifles replaced by bren guns which you then took turns in carrying as the marches progressed.

The finale was the thirty miler across dartmoor, to be completed in eight hours, again failure was not an option. All those long hours in the gym paid off and somehow we made it. And so those that had not fallen by the wayside, (one squadmate broke his leg during the cliff climbing and was duly back squaded, a fate dreaded by all because it meant everything had to be done again) were duly presented with their coveted green berets by the CO of 42 Commando in a small ceremony. No band played on this time and we were told to put the berets away in our kit bags and forget about them. And so we left Bickleigh Camp and moved on to Group Four training which was a two week course in seamanship aboard the old cruisers HMS Cleopatra and Dido, laid up together in Portsmouth Harbour.

Luxury, a warm place to sleep and no more slit trenches for us. Seamanship training consisted of learning how to "sling your hammock "which every morning had be "lashed and stowed" and in the evening re slung. Hammocks were scrutinised for correct lashing and slack hammocks were required to be done again.

You may know the old naval cry of "heave ho, heave ho, lash and stow, on socks, hands off cocks, the sun is burning your eyes out" Being three decks down I could not understand the latter part of this cry. Why did we need to learn how to lash a hammock we asked? "Well" informs the old Sea Soldier Sgt, "on HM ships the smaller ones have hammocks instead of bunks to save space" It was then I decided that sea service was not for me. The nautical terms in use since joining the corps came in useful, we soon learned which was port and starboard and the odd few we didn't know. The daily routine was learning how to tie and splice knots in both rope and wire, boat drill, rowing and pulling the whaler around the harbour. Duties of the Cpl of the Gangway and the keyboard sentry, naval ranks and titles. It was here that the term "going ashore" meant something as at the weekend we went ashore in a motor launch.

I took the opportunity and a chance to catch a train from Portsmouth Harbour to Waterloo and home to Tooting to see my old mum, trying not to attract the attention of the RMP/RAF Police/ RN Regulating Branch patrols at Waterloo Station as I was travelling without a leave pass. Seamanship training completed we "went ashore" no parade, no band and not so much as a thank you: and so into the RM Barracks Southsea for the final phase of our recruit training, Kings Squad.

Royal Marine Barracks Eastney is a fine old Victorian Barracks which stands by the sea at Southsea, today the original part of the buildings still stands, a listed building. Some years ago I took a sentimental journey to visit the RM Museum, I was much amused to find my old barracks had been converted into flats and were selling at £120,000 each.

The senior recruit squad in the Royal Marines was known as "The King's Squad". We were welcomed on arrival at the barracks by the 1st Drill, a stern faced QMS who commanded the parade ground staff and we were told what was expected of us. The last two weeks of our training was spent honing our drill, the usual periods in the gym and lectures. the 630 Kings Squad passed for duty on the 21st May 1955 with the usual parade and an inspection and address by a senior naval officer.

Again the band played, excellent as always. On completion of the parade the 1st Drill read out our fate. And so my squad broke up to follow our different careers in the corps, myself and another to the Signal Training Wing RM, some other specialist courses, others to 3 Commando Brigade and some to a course at the RN Gunnery School School at Whale Island prior to embarking on HM ships. Not a nice place to go by all accounts.

 

A visit to Deal 1994

The Signal Training Wing Royal Marines Eastney was a modern addition to the old Victorian Barracks. The building also housed the Clerks Training Wing and the Band and Corps of Drums. This, and the other more modern additions to the barracks have long since been demolished to make way for a housing development.

I commenced my Signaller Class 3 (S3) course in July having been gainfully employed on a variety of menial tasks around the barracks, not what I had joined up for. The S3 course was of sixteen weeks duration. During this period we were expected to master the morse code to the standard of twelve words a minute, read semaphore, (here my time in the Boy Scouts and 34F Air Training Corps came in useful and I knew both morse and semaphore)
We were also required to know how to charge up batteries, run a petrol driven charging engine, erect a 32 foot mast aerial, know about wireless theory, master the use of the military wireless sets in use in the corps at the time, the 88, 31, 62 and 19. Also how to lay telephone cable and set up a field telephone exchange. How to read morse by lamp.
How to fill out a signal log and the duties of a Signal Centre clerk. Copious notes were taken and the book filled up rapidly. Weekly tests checked out our progress in everything. Exercises on foot and in vehicles, requiring our map reading skills got us out of the classroom and into the sun. Much fun was had in laying cable from the back of a landrover. The skill here was to avoid entangling the cable in the eyelet on the end of the cable laying rod otherwise you found yourself in the hedge or ditch. Walking around with the 88 and 31 sets we soon found them to be unreliable.

The summer of 1955 was glorious and long evenings were spent walking along the sea front looking for the girls who flocked to Portsmouth seeking romance. The weekend commenced at 1200 Saturday, on completion of morning fatigues. Unless caught for guard or fire piquet duty, for me it was on the coach home to Tooting, fare 10/6 (52 pence) return. The coach left from the barrack gates at 1230 prompt and returned Sunday night from Victoria Coach station leaving at midnight. Daily rate of pay as a 2nd Class Royal Marine was 7/- (35 pence) a DAY
National Servicemen got 4/- (20 pence) a DAY. The coach station was always filled with squaddies returning to their barracks, all dressed in their uniforms, with a tearful mother or girlfriend clinging around their necks, I always went home in civilian clothes, I had arrived!
I passed my S3 course and proudly had the qualification badge, crossed flags with a star above sewn onto my uniforms. My S3 qualification gained for me another 6d (2-1/2 pence) a day

Then two weeks embarkation leave before joining Signal Troop 3 Commando Brigade RM, who had recently moved to Cyprus from Malta to counteract the Greek terrorist organisation EOKA.

My DORM (Drafting Order Royal Marines) number said Signal Troop 3 Commando Brigade RM and having had my fouteen days embarkation leave and said my fond farewells to family and friends and in company with the other members of my S3 course set off for Stansted Airport. We stopped overnight in London, in a hell hole of a transit camp, situated deep underground, part of Goodge Street Underground Railway Station.

I was a few stops from home on the train but was not allowed to leave the complex. The following day we flew out from Stansted Airport courtesy of Eagle Airways, who had an air trooping contract, and landed at Nicosia Airport Cyprus. On arrival we were taken to Waynes Keep Transit camp, another hell hole. Here the accommodation was tents and the food un-edible. We lived on crisps and chocolate bars for the next 24hours. A three ton lorry arrived from Brigade HQ to carry us to our new home, another tented encampment near to Limassol which bore the grand title Polmedia Camp. Nearby was Berengaria Village, named, we were informed for a Queen.

Conditions in Polymedia Camp were very primitive, no nice hot showers here but a wash down in a metal bowl. The food prepared by RM cooks was quite good considering it was cooked in field kitchen conditions, not for us the delights of the ACC.
After a short while we were invited to go into Limassol and dig some monsoon ditches and erect our own tents in a field, I believe the previous use had been for growing potatoes. Tents erected, ditches dug and duck boards laid down we moved into our new home, here was luxury indeed, two to a tent instead of three as in Polymedia.

Wet bar - Limassol
My promotion to Marine 1st Class had come through and with another shilling a day (five pence) added to my pay and one and six a day (seven and a half pence) local overseas allowance I was earning big money. Unfortunately there was nothing to spend it on other than the wet canteen where copious pints of Keo beer were consumed. In camp entertainment was provided in the camp cinema, a hastily constructed nissan hut with a concrete floor. Films changed once a week courtesy of the AKC. The camp was surrounded by a double perimeter of barbed wire spaced about ten yards apart. One entrance only, guarded by the Regimental Police, inside the perimeter paced the guard, around and around they went, day and night. This potato field was grandly entitled GIBRALTAR CAMP, named for the famous battle which is the only honour born on the Royal Marines colours.

I commenced my new career as a signaller. My first job was to be as a despatch rider I was informed by the Troop Sgt Major. Not for me the joy of riding a motor cycle around Cyprus, too dangerous I was told. Instead you shall travel in a champ says the Troop Sgt Major, chauffeur driven in style by a RM driver. For the first two months in Cyprus I travelled between Limassol and Paphos, armed with a sten gun in case of ambush by EOKA dropping off and picking up signals from various army units along the way including a stop off at RAF Episkopi for tea. My journey finished at the camp of the Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment) First of Foot, Right of the Line, Pontious Pilates Bodyguard so they said. If only the food had been as grand as the title. Myself and the driver declined to eat in the fly ridden tent and instead enjoyed the hospitality of the two marines operating the Brigade Rear Link Wireless station. Here a 62 set with 32 foot mast passed the unclassified traffic between The Royal Scots and the 3 Commando Brigade HQ. These two had wisely requested ten man ration packs to be sent from Brigade HQ. Not for them the culinary delights of the Royal Scots.

Christmas came and went and letters and parcels from home relieved the monotony of being confined like POW's in a cage. My two months on the road came to an end and I moved on to the line laying section. Another poor soul took my place and put his life on the line on the despatch run.

Work on the line section also got me out of the camp. We went out in a champ laden with the tools of the trade and spare cable to mend the lines already in place. These were laid between Brigade HQ and the outlying police stations and army units around Limassol. The purpose was to avoid possible eaves dropping by the locals on the civilian network. We always went armed with our sten guns and worked under the guidance of a L/Cpl from the Royal Signals who new the routes and who, to our amazement, told us that Linesman was the only job he was trained to do.


Line laying

At some time early in 1956 an order was promulgated that all those serving on a seven year engagement were to muster outside the troop office. The Troop Sgt Major dutifully read out an Admiralty Fleet Order which invited all those serving on the existing engagement of seven years with the colours and five on the reserve to change to the new minimum engagement for the RM and RN of nine years.
For signing away another two years of our lives our reward would be an increase of a shilling a day (five pence) Having been sent abroad just before Christmas and cooped up like a chicken this was not a good time to ask me so I declined the generous offer.
Working with and alongside the army I took the opportunity to add to my cap badge collection and by cadging and swopping my collection grew. A RM cap badge in those days cost 4d (one and a half pence). Having had a relatively uneventful time laying and repairing the lines around Limassol for four months I was duly moved on to my next job, wireless operator.

Gibraltar Camp - plenty of mud!

In the mean time Gibraltar Camp was improving with the addition of showers put in by the
Royal Engineers. Nice you might think, but as the weather improved and the pipes were laid above the surface, the water was boiling hot in the day and freezing at night.
The toilets never improved and were pits dug about ten feet deep on top of which were mounted "thunder boxes", six a side, all topped off with a corrugated roof.
Each thunder box had a lid, which when lifted, the stench and flies nearly knocked you down. The pit moved around the camp as it filled up. Twelve seats adequate you may think, and so it was until the supply officer bought in some water melon which we learned later had been grown on a sewage farm. Oh how we danced. The temperature was starting to rise with the onset of summer and the battle now was how to quench your thirst. The consumption of Keo and Coca Cola rose.

In addition to our normal work those not on watch keeping duties were required to take their turn on guard duty. And so many a night, once or twice week I took my turn walking the perimeter fence armed with, this time, a rifle and ten rounds. Two hours on and four hours off in pairs we marched. Each pair keeping a distance of about ten yards apart.
Varying the route we took so we didn't arrive at any point at any particular time. Tin cans had been added to the barbed wire to jingle jangle if interfered with.


No 6 uniform
The wireless section was watch keeping so no more guards for me, instead, sitting on a wireless set, four hours on four hours off for twenty-four hours and then twenty-four hours off was the rota. I was situated in a Cypriot Police station somewhere around Limassol passing wireless traffic relating to internal security duties. Time passed quickly as the twenty-four hours off was spent doing our dhobi, sleeping or sunbathing. The summer in Cyprus is very hot and the months of June and July particularly so: even more money went into Keo and Coca Cola or anything to quench our thirst. Then the news came in July that the brigade was to move back to Malta. And so we said farewell to Limassol and moved by lorry with all our wordly goods to Famagusta. Here we were put aboard the light fleet carrier HMS Ocean for the short sea journey to Grand Harbour Valetta Malta.

Accommodation aboard the ship was primitive, we were billeted in the carriers hangers.Our beds consisted of scaffolding poles between which had been strung canvas bearers.The food was better than that cooked on the field kitchen equipment as it didn't have the wonder derv flavour. Once again the nautical terms we had learnt came in useful. We arrived in Grand Harbour Valetta Malta and moved to our new home, St Andrews and St George's Barracks.

On arrival we "marched in" a term unknown to us, whereby an officious looking army sergeant went around with our room corporal and made a note of every cracked window, stained mattress, cigarette burns on the table and chips in the paint work on his clipboard. We were informed that we would be liable for any "barrack room damages" when we "marched out". All very worrying. The stone barracks we occupied still stand today, used as holiday homes or flats by the Maltese. It was nice to sleep in a real bed again after the camp beds of Cyprus. The barrack rooms were big and airy and had fans mounted in the ceiling to keep us cool.

We began training for OPERATION MUSKETEER the forthcoming invasion of Port Said. Long marches around the Maltese countryside and practising our skills. I took on a new job as Signal Troop storeman and went on many a journey with the TQMS to the local RAOC depot to draw stores. You are going to Suez says the locally employed Maltese storemen, it was supposed to be a secret. I spent a very pleasant summer in Malta seeing the sights and enjoyed many "runs ashore", it was good to be free after being cooped up behind bar wire for so long. No more guard duty for me, I now lived in the store with the stores Corporal and we took turns in being duty storeman. The store housed all the treasures of the TQMS, watches, weapons, wireless equipment etc. Somebody had to be there all the time. And so after much training we boarded the vessels that would take us to Port Said.

Nasser had seized the Suez Canal, no compensation for the shareholders, so we were going to take it back. 3 Commando Brigade RM, now at full strength with the recently arrived 42 Commando RM from their home in Bickleigh, embarked on a small armada of antiquated landing craft with our antiquated weapons, all relics from the Second World War. and put to sea.

Enroute to Port Said Nov. 1956, with me is Harry Caldwell a NS Royal Marine.

We had practised loading and unloading the vessels before, but usually, after a small trip around the island, we landed, and went back to our barracks. This time it was different, on the 28th October 1956 we were off to Port Said, to do battle with the Egyptian army. Rumours circulated that fifty per cent casualties could be expected. All very worrying. I was aboard an LCT (Landing Craft Tank), redundant as a storeman, I was now part of the Brigade Signal Centre crew. The conditions on board were cramped to say the least, we slept where we could and ate out of our mess tins, the food was disgusting and the washing up facilities even more so. Fortunately the sea was calm and the flat bottomed bitch didn't roll too much. In the well deck of the LCT were berthed some of the vehicles of Signal Troop, ready for action. And so we cruised along for a week at a leisurely pace until we came in sight of Port Said.

Operation Musketeer, the invasion of Port Said commenced on the 6th November 1956.
H hour was as usual at dawn: the armada of landing craft and vessels, which had stood off from the coastline began to move towards the beaches. With gunfire from the supporting ships 40 and 42 Commando RM were ashore first. Overhead aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm moved in to support the attack. Opposition was light as the majority of the Egyptian army, having heard that "the British are coming" made what the Americans would term "an advance to the rear". 3 Commando Brigade RM HQ landed a couple of hours after the main force went in. We moved inland and set up our command centre.

Tripoli 1960

I remember digging in and taking up a defensive position with my trusty .303. Sniper fire was prevalent and the Egyptian Army, those who had stayed behind, having discarded their uniforms were difficult to identify unless actually seen firing at you. We had some support from the Royal Tank Regiment and from some anti tank gunners borrowed from the Royal Berkshire Regiment who adopted an artillery role and blasted at buildings containing snipers. Above Fleet Air Arm aircraft waited to be called down to strike when and where required. Smoke began to rise over Port Said and as darkness fell I ate some of my 24 hour ration pack. I remember water was scarce and replenishing my water bottle from a bowser.News came through that a Fleet Air Arm Wyvern hadstrafed 45 Commando Tactical HQ and killed and injured many,amongst them the CO The battle went on for two days when news came through that a cease fire had been called. We then moved into a luxury block of flats which the occupants had vacated, leaving behind them all their worldly possessions. Orders came through that there was to be no damage or looting. Unfortunately many succumbed to temptation and goodies were squirreled away.

It was here that I had my first encounter with a strange object in the bathroom, which appeared, at first to be for washing your feet in but which we later learned was called a bidet and used for an entirely different purpose. I took up my duties in Brigade HQ Signal Centre.
After a week or so we were told we were going to be relieved. And so it was that the army in the shape of 3 Infantry Division took over our positions and we withdrew. Later when employed at the MOD I spoke with one of the relieving force who had been in the Royal Signals. The butchers bill as far as the Royal Marines were concerned were 10 killed (two officers, one sergeant and seven marines) and 48 wounded, this included the damage done by the FAA Wyvern.

In 1995 while doing some research I was to learn of the fate of the bodies of those who had fallen. Unlike other conflicts the bodies were not buried in the land where they fell. I can imagine what a vengeful Egyptian population would have done to them. In Cyprus I had attended the funeral of a marine at Nicosia Military Cemetery where casualties of the emergency were being buried. This time nine of the dead came home to the UK and one was buried at sea. Six rest in the Haslar Naval Cemetery Gosport and three were taken by their families for private burial. Given the outcome of this operation you can imagine how bitter the families must have felt. They had died for nothing.

The rumour about the fifty per cent casualties proved to be hopelessly over estimated thank god, a determined enemy would have made the butchers bill much greater. I felt relieved that it was all over. We eventually boarded a troopship which was to carry us back to Malta, far more comfortable than the LCT.

We arrived back in Grand Harbour Valletta Malta mid November and took up residence in our old barracks at St Andrews. I had been informed before going to Port Said that I had been selected to attend a JNCO's course at Ghajn Tuffieha, the Royal Marines training establishment in Malta. On 26th November 1956 I was appointed L/Cpl, a requirement of the course. No such rank in the RM as L/Cpl, it was an appointment, acting, unpaid, unwanted.

Ghajn Tuffieha was another hutted encampment, my squad mate now resident in Malta tells me it is now a rubbish dump. The JNCO's course in those days consisted of two parts, each of six weeks duration. Those employed in specialist duties such as signaller, cook, clerk, driver, etc were only required to take part one. The number two and three blue uniforms, unused for so long were now carefully pressed. Bullshit was back big time. Apart from the morning parade and inspection in a variety of rigs the course consisted of how to take a squad for drill, battle PT, (arm trunk leg, arm trunk leg, arm trunk leg exercises, a game and then discipline was the chant of the PTI) how to give instruction and lecture. How to fill out a charge sheet, both army and navy. I remember having to give a three minute talk on matchbox, it could have been worse, another was given the task of three minutes talk on a banana, try it for yourself. Interviews with the course staff, why did I want to be an NCO, more money was not the answer they wanted to hear. A short respite for Christmas brought welcome relief from the grind.

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On the 12th January 1957, the course having ended, I was reduced to the ranks, having gained a pass for the course and been presented with a very nice certificate.
Having the necessary educational qualifications all I needed now was to take my S2 course, some good reports and wait my turn for promotion. Back in St Andrews Barracks I resumed my duties as storeman. At about this time I was given a posting preference form to fill in. Choices were Royal Marines Barracks Eastney, Royal Marines Barracks Plymouth, Royal Marines Barracks Deal, ITCRM Lympstone, Joint Services Amphibious Warfare Centre Poole or 42 Commando RM Bickleigh. I filled in the form in accordance with how far away from Tooting the establishments were. My DORM came through and I had been drafted to 42 Commando Bickleigh, the most distant from my home. Now there was a surprise.

Also about this time I applied for a parachute course.
Another DORM, this time informing me that I was to proceed to the Signal Training Wing for my S2 course on 20th June. My 18 month tour of duty was up on the 27th May but because I had to start the S2 course I was sent home early. On the 3rd May 1957 I proceeded to Luqa airport for the flight home. We landed at Blackbush, a small airport miles from anywhere and proceeded to London in a coach where I was duly dumped and left to make my own way home in the middle of the night. For each month spent abroad I was entitled to two days foreign service leave, thirty-six days in all.

Having been dumped at Victoria Coach Station in the middle of the night and public transport being closed down, I decided to get a cab home. "Outside my area" says the cabbie, "but I'll do it for thirty bob." I think this man was a direct descendant of Dick Turpin. Mother wasn't going to open the door at that time of the night so I hid my suitcase and wandered around Tooting looking in the shop windows. I spent most of the first day of my leave in bed. I had a most enjoyable leave, bought myself some new clothes, I had outgrown all I had left behind, looked up my old friends. One, who had been in the Air Training Corps with me was just coming to the end of his National Service, which he had spent in the RAF at Weymouth and had been home every weekend. How I envied him.

A much under strength Signal Section 42 Commando RM 1958 -JB seated front row second from right.
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My leave up, I boarded the train and on the 10th June 1957 and reported to the guardroom at Bickleigh Camp, the home of 42 Commando RM and the Commando Training Centre. The sign nailed to the telegraph pole in the signal section lines depicted the head of a mule and proudly proclaimed "Pronto's Pack Mules," Pronto being the nick name for the Signal Officer. My stay with 42 Commando signal section this time was short, with just enough time to get my morse and semaphore up to speed. On the 19th June I was appointed L/Cpl yet again, a requirement for the S2 course. I arrived at the Signal School Royal Marines Barracks Eastney on the 21st June ready to commence my S2 course. At least part of my drafting preference had been granted, I was a coach ride away from home again.

Back in Eastney Barracks I was told to put away my green beret and take down the Royal Marines Commando flashes from my battledress. Bullshit was back. Rig of the day was No 3 uniform, blue serge with no red infantry stripe down the trousers, blue beret with the red tombstone backing to the cap badge and of course, the white cap. At least the brass work had been replaced by staybrite badges and buttons.

I had just commenced the S2 course when the Company Sgt Major says, "you must go to Northern Ireland, the Royal Marines Reservists are having their annual camp and haven't enough signallers." Bloody cheek I thought, I have only just come back from abroad. And so the whole of my S2 course journeyed to Northern Ireland by way of train and boat to a god forsaken hutted camp in the middle of nowhere which bore the name Magilligan Point and which was near Lough Foyle. I understand this place is now a prison.


Conditions were as usual primitive, food disgusting and the only saving grace were the "runs ashore" to the nearby seaside resort of Port Rush, for which transport was duly provided in the shape of three ton lorries. We assisted the reservists with their training for two weeks, the only highlight being when a request was received from a nearby army unit who wanted to have use of our landing craft to practice landings. I was aboard one of the craft with my trusty line of sight 31 set (if you could see him, you could hear him). The army chaps duly arrived and after some instruction on boarding and disembarking we finally put to sea. After a trip around Lough Foyle we began the run in to the beach. Thunder flashes were being thrown into the water to simulate shell fire. Suddenly I heard a distress call over the air and noticed that on one of the craft the soldiers were scrambling up onto the gunnels. The craft was sinking, one of the thunder flashes had passed under the bow door and blown a hole in the bottom. Fortunately all were taken aboard other craft before the distressed vessel sank many fathoms to the bottom of Lough Foyle, never to be seen again. Evidently the old landing craft, another left over from the second world war had only a marine plywood bottom which had rotted away with time. The bow door however was heavily armoured.

Back from my excursion in Northern Ireland I resumed my S2 course, which was a rerun of the S3 course only the morse, semaphore and lamp reading speeds went up. Added was landing craft manoeuvring signals. The wireless theory became more difficult, how a thermionic valve functioned, the mysteries of the ionosphere, the Connolly and Appleton layers. How to calculate an aerial length, different types of wavelength, what skip distance was. Also basic fault finding on the 62 set whereby you learnt parrot fashion what symptoms you got it one of the valves failed. A box of spare valves came supplied with the 62 set.


At sometime during the course we were asked if any would like to volunteer for a Signallers Canoe Course which would be held at the Joint Services Amphibious Warfare Centre at Poole. Someone up above had decided it was easier to teach signallers to canoe than it was to teach swimmer canoeists to be signallers. Poole being nearer than Bickleigh I volunteered.


Summer leave came and after another two weeks at home I really didn't want to go back. My friends were all coming to the end of their National Service. I returned with thoughts of purchasing my discharge, unfortunately due to the amount of money required it was out of the question. The S2 course ended on the 18th November 1957 with a pass and another badge, crossed flags with two stars and the SQ pay went up to 1/- a day (five pence) Once again I was reduced to the ranks and returned to Bickleigh Camp and the Signal Section 42 Commando, miles from home. On returning, just as reluctantly, from Christmas leave I was told to proceed to Poole for the Signallers Canoe course.

The Commando Carrier HMS. Bulwark leaving Portsmouth Harbour on the 14th March 1960. Unit transport on the flight deck, 42 Commando RM lining the side and Fleet Air Arm Helicopters below in the hangar. John Best was in the ships Signal Office. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Copyright: Text & Images: John Best

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