Army Days

by Ray Hoggart


Being born during the war and growing up at a time when the services were always around made you aware that one day your turn would come. At eighteen years old every male had to register for National Service at the local Labour Exchange unless you were considered to be in a reserved occupation, the two that come to mind were the coalmines and farming. I still have that piece of brown card that says I registered. At school and then at work, talk was often about the merits of each and which branch of the service you would enter, I’ve never liked water much and just didn’t fancy being one of the ‘Brylcreem’ boys so it looked like the army for me.

When I was 20 I was given the option of an early or late call-up, I opted for the early. At about the same time I was summoned to Eccleshall Road in Sheffield for my medical and told I was A1 (really?). At an interview I said I wanted to be in the REME or RE, all of the lads before me from work had been in one or the other, I was later to find I was going in to the Royal Artillery which was a blow but there was no way round it as it happened it didn’t make a great deal of difference. At this time I was thinking of the Army as a career but six years being the minimum was a lot of your life in one slice so I decided to ‘suck it and see’. The travel warrants came and there I was on the 7th of January 1960, five weeks over 21 and going for a soldier.


Pete Graham - Dave Hunt - Alan Fussell - ? Shaw

I was sent to Oswestry for training but of course none of us knew that it was only for kitting out and basic square bashing for 2 weeks. Wearing only thin clothes we were all taken to the QMs stores for our kit, the problem was there seemed like thousands of us in a queue as long as the Nile river, I think I was next to the back. The first item being the kit bag of course, and everything after that was supposed to go in it, with time and the patience of a saint this could be accomplished but these were in short supply so everything got rammed in. Forever after that I thought that in the next life I want to come back as one of the lads who were throwing the kit at us, it must have been a laugh at the end of the day for them, a size nine boot in the ear was no way to start your service life. Frozen stiff we hauled ourselves back to a barrack block to find it was the wrong one, well they all look the same. We did eventually get back ‘home’ to be informed we were in beds in alphabetical order, it just happened that I was right at the bottom, which wasn’t so bad really, the lads near the door tended to ‘cop it’ whenever an NCO or anyone nearer to God came in. The snag was, over my bed was a hole in the wall, quite high up but later that first night it snowed, on me and my hastily constructed bed. Luckily the bed opposite was empty so I was able to swop the next day without disturbing the alphabet.

The first morning of army life was like an earthquake, the NCOs obviously thought it funny to enter the room and hit all the lockers with a stick, it worked, we were all awake . The next few minutes were an eye opener, 6 barrack rooms in the spider, around 18 men in each all trying to use about 24 wash basins of which 2 or 3 had plugs! The only thing to do was stuff toilet paper in the plug’ole and try and get a shave before it all seeped out, I was on the end near the window which had a broken pane in it so had a shave with snow blowing in my ear.

That day was Friday, we were given our address so we could inform family where to write to us, eventually those letters from home although lifesavers tormented us with thoughts of home surrounded by soldiers of a few days all with wistful looks on their faces. We were informed by the NCO (their names escape me now) that “You will go to the NAAFI shop and buy a candle, wooden coathangers a tin of Brasso, Kiwi shoe polish and a yellow duster”. Of course there is always one who asks “why should we do this?” The answer of course was “You WILL go to the NAAFI shop etc” after two or three goes at this the new recruit gave in and off he went to the NAAFI shop.


Self - ? - Taff Thomas

The rest of the day was given to informing us how to get the pile of creased jumble sale goods we had acquired to look like a uniform and of course number everything you owned with your army number, my last four were 7155 and somehow my boots were stamped 7511. I had visions of being wounded in action and being given the wrong name! Of course in adversity someone always finds something to have a laugh at, this was of course two pairs of “underpants, winter, soldiers for the use of”. At 21, and being at the height of fashion these knee length objects were like something out of a Brian Rix farce and of course no-one was ever going to wear them!! We also found out the highly scientific way to make the pimples on your boots flat, you heated a spoon handle in the candle and simply burned them flat, brilliant. Someone must have had a word to the wise because he brought an old second hand electric iron, did them in half the time, he only charged 2 bob a go! He got his money back and then sold the iron to the next lot of recruits, probably a millionaire by now!

At this time we were given an aptitude test to see where our hidden talents lay, so, because I knew how to connect batteries in series I was to be trained as a signaller, I had visions of standing on a hilltop with a pair of flags. The second night I was slightly warmer and was treated to the sight of a chap in the bed opposite , Sid, reading his Bible by candlelight, very atmospheric. My first Sunday as a recruit meant an extra 2 hours in bed, fat chance, according to the powers that be, the camp was knee deep in fag ends and spent matches etc so Sunday was spent with the rest of the Nile river gang scouring the camp for these elusive objects. Being January and being frozen to the core the devious mjnd starts to look for a way out, my first skive? I recalled seeing a room in the ‘spider’ that never seemed to have any use, the drying room. I made my way to this haven of warmth only to find that as I opened the door it was like stepping into a pub tap room, everyone else had thought of it before me. The one good thing to come out of all this, we all discovered the value of “underpants, winter, soldiers for the use of” The only time they didn’t help was PT, this form of torture meant stripping down to navy blue shorts and white T shirt, in January! It always seemed to work out that the squad in front of us were running late so by the time we got into the gym we were on the verge of hyperthermia, can you imagine undoing leather laces tied in reef knots with fingers like blue ice lollies? Of course there were other aspects to training, the seemingly endless drill on the square and so on, not as warm as you might think wearing only thin cotton fatigues. The upshot of all this training gave the NCO’s their daily tally of grafters for the evening fatigues. At the end of each spell of ‘training’ it was always “Last two out are shovelling coke” Shovelling coke was a euphemism for any disagreeable job that needed doing and ranged from shovelling coke to ‘bumping’ the floor in the MI room,,cleaning or sweeping somewhere.

During the first week we decided what to do with our pay, we were advised to save some and send some home to family if we wanted, I decided to save some! The first pay day would have been 1 week after we arrived, Thursday when I received the handsome sum of £1 and a few coppers. Eventually the 2 weeks passed and I went to 38 Training Regiment at Rhyl which was to train the Signallers and Drivers and the first thing I realized about the move was any friendships made in that fortnight stood a good chance of being lost.

Taff Phillips - Self - John Pearson - Taff Butler - Terry Harragan - Snook - Allan Fussell


Once at Rhyl we were made aware that there we would stay until our training was finished, from there we would go to an operational unit. Once again we were in the ubiquitous ‘spider but with two weeks under our belts we were old sweats weren’t we?

Of the train journey from Oswestry to Rhyl I can recall very little except being aware that the friendships I had made were now being broken. Although the soldier from the bed opposite me was in that train carriage it seemed that we both were ready to find new friends. Of Sid who read the bible at night, he went who knows where, I’d love to hear his story, a bible reading soldier was a bit of a rarity! One chap in the carriage, from the same section as me at Oswestry but a different barrack room so I knew him by sight, was also a Yorkshireman and that seemed to serve as a common bond.

Squad Picture - I am third from right - Back row.


We arrived at Rhyl, 38 Training Regiment RA, to find ourselves with a new band of faces and names to get to know, and of the 18 people whose faces I can recall, 14 of their names I remember, 5 of us were from the original section in Oswestry plus one in the other barrack room of 18. For the first time we had a ‘regular’ soldier in our midst , he looked the same as us anyway! We met our NCO’s, Bdr Walsh was in our barrack, L/Bdr Shepherd in the other, of the Sergeant Senior who was in charge there was little sign, we learned later that he was on leave and studying for promotion. Bdr Walsh was a regular NCO whilst Shepherd was N/S the same as us, I’m not sure what L/Bdr Shepherd did before the army but we all thought he would have made an ideal farmer, a ruddy face and legs that were ordained to be behind a plough, as they say in Yorkshire “he couldn’t have caught a pig in a ginnel” or “there’s no way he’s going to be our goalkeeper”. Of the two he appeared the more amenable, and when parading, the commands were understandable and as clear as they can be. On the other hand Bdr Walsh finished his parade ground commands with a screech like a wounded seagull so being near the coast meant we often came to attention on the instructions of a large white bird!

Taff Thomas - ? - Jock Clark - Allan Fussell

One of those strange military customs in this Regiment was that all NCOs carried sticks! Usually only a piece of varnished wood dowelling or bamboo if you weren’t so well heeled. Over the top of this trio was a 2nd Lieutenant with ginger hair and brown boots but I forget his name. The song of the moment was ‘Why’ by Anthony Newley.

The education in marching and other soldierly techniques was carried on and improved but there was now the new training as …..Signallers. My vision of standing on a hill with flags was soon to be dispelled, it appeared that we now had something new in the world of military technology, the field telephone! This archaic instrument was a relic from the Great War but seemed to work! The idea of a telephone was a good one except that it needed a wire to them to get a message through and guess who had to string this wire from the sender to the receiver?
R ight first time! We were presented with a variety of pieces of equipment to run out this wire, fortunately some of them were mounted on the back of a 1 ton vehicle, all the signaller had to do was gallop behind and peg the wire to the ground. Some of the 1 ton drivers thought it good fun to play at being Stirling Moss so we had to gallop quite a bit. One of the snags with the system was, if the wire snapped it had to be repaired by joining the wire with a reef knot, by the time the reef knot was done the 1 tonner and driver would be a mile away. One other means of reeling out the wire was a chest type carrier hung over the shoulders, the problem with this meant you walked everywhere backwards, spending more time on your backside than on your feet. We were instructed to remember the names of these pieces of equipment because we would need them for our final assessment, I can’t remember them now because I never could then!

At least it was now March and not as cold as it had been, I have memories of going round and round that field on a nice sunny afternoon, we had a good laugh because no-one really got the hang of it, in the end most wires were just tied in any old knot, a good job we never tried to send a message on one. The one good thing it taught me, the field telephones were painted “bronze green” now there’s a thing!

The basic elements of marching, about turns on the move, right turns, left turns, saluting whilst marching were all still part of the daily routine. For some reason the last squad to arrive were given the name nickname “nigs”! Where this came from I have no idea but it was used as an insult to any squad of soldiers who had done less time than you and their drill was inferior to yours. The other thing that marked you down as “nigs”, the early drill exercises were all conducted to the rythm of “1, 2, 3,” shouted at the top of your voice to all manoeuvres which none of us thought worked but attracted the attention of everyone within a quarter of a mile. The daily trip for a NAAFI break was done on a rota system so that the place never got crowded and of course the newest arrivals were always the last to arrive. This was one of the most embarrassing times of my life, to be marched to the NAAFI and turn a corner to see probably two earlier squads than your own waiting for their daily shot of “1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,3” and instead of one thud as thirty six boots hit the road, it sounded more like a handful of pebbles on a tin roof. Of course, after two weeks another squad of “nigs would arrive and you would move up the ladder a rung but there was always some squad higher than you for fourteen weeks who could still lord it over you.

Self and Pete Graham

Eventually the day arrived and for two weeks you were at the top of the tree and could indulge in bouts of giggling and laughing at the antics of the “1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,3” gang. I must admit that this is where the ‘esprit de corps’ came into it, I think all the squad got a buzz out of slick drill and even today at local Armistice day parades I judge the soldiers by their quality of drill, you can always tell the regular soldiers from the cadets but of course nothing beats the old “ammunition boots” as they were called for a nice bit of square bashing. I seem to recall one marching episode when there had been a fall of snow which had thawed then frozen and it was one of those occasions when skates would have been more use that boots because the camp was on the side of a hill. To this day when walking on ice or snow I can still hear L/Bdr Shepherd shouting “Dig ‘em in, dig ‘em in, dig ‘em in”

One of the most important aspects of being a signaller is the language of the signaller,
We learned the phonetic alphabet which one never forgets and VP! Voice procedure is the language of the signaller and is all important, I still break down ‘phone numbers into blocks of three as in a military map grid reference and find it hard to say double numbers as one word, “four seven” as opposed to “fortyseven”. We had a lovely day out once, it must have been April or early May when we were taken out into the Welsh countryside to practice our new talents. Teams of three or four would be assigned to a 1 tonner and carted off in different directions to try and establish contact with each other, each group calls up and is identified and logged in with the signal strengths of each being noted. The drivers of the 1 tonner had a lovely day out, on the top of the canvas roof fast asleep. By lunchtime it became apparent our little bunch of Marconis weren’t ‘on the net’, we had neither heard of any of the other groups nor had they replied to us.

We clambered out of the vehicle to find that we were near a high power cable, something we had been warned about and something I suspect the driver knew about and deliberately took us there. We moved the vehicle to a new location but by then I think everyone else had stopped looking for us. The arrival of the Squad 2nd Lieutenant with his ginger hair, his brown boots and an Austin Champ bucked us up but it turned out no-one had made it to the net, we weren’t sure whether to be happy or not, he wasn’t, he kept slapping his leg with his stick and muttering to himself. We had a packed lunch all together for the first time that morning then set off to try it all again. We did eventually get something of a net going in the afternoon but it left a lot to be desired.

Of course all this signalling etc had nothing to do with basic soldiering, the art of bulling boots, blancoing belts and gaiters still had to be maintained. There would be an inspection daily your of your personal turnout , since I had always been told that I ‘scrubbed up well’ so I had few problems but there is always someone who either can’t or won’t and unfortunately the whole squad is judged by its weakest link. On returning from tea at the mess I would immediately blanco my belt, clean the brasses, and generally do what was to be worn the next day. There was a little business to be done by the squads in front of us who had sorted out all the problems of polishing and pressing things and would clean your brasses or boots, press trousers if you had trouble with them.

Yes it's me again

Occasionally there would be an inspection of you and your best B.D., armyspeak for battledress, the thought of a battle frightened me to death, so although never having ironed anything in my life I soon learned, all of us had something that we didn’t excel at and very often your mates would rally round and lend a hand if it was needed. There is always an exception of course, no names, but every evening he would come back from the mess and flop on his bed pick up a book and stay there till it was dark, of course he then had to do all his kit in semi darkness, the army never seemed to have enough light bulbs to go round . All you could hope for the next day was that he would be in the middle rank somewhere and wouldn’t be noticed. We were all advised on general cleanliness and always enjoyed a shower each evening but it must have been noticed that some of the squad were less enthusiastic about this so a bath book was installed, I always made a point when dripping wet to point out to someone that I had done the necessary and was signing the book. Anyone with his name in the book but had no witnesses was regarded with suspicion! I recall one soldier, again no names, who didn’t appear to have his name in the book, so before the NCO’s got around to checking the book he was given the honour of a cold bath and scrubbed with the yard brush!

Self and Pete Graham

One of the duties that had to be performed was the Cinema Fire Picquet! This meant going in uniform to the camp cinema in the evening and making sure no-one had left a lighted cigarette or anything burning at the close of the show then roll up the carpet, give it a quick sweep and go. Of course this was all done in your leisure time and your kit would still have to be cleaned when you arrived back. On other nights we would pay good money to go to the cinema! Why not combine the two? I and my fellow Yorkshireman did the unthinkable! We volunteered for the Fire Picquet duty on the nights when there was a good film on, it had to be done once a week so why not utilize the duty. This of course didn’t sit well with some of the others who stubbornly insisted on doing Fire Picquet one night then paying to go to the cinema another.

One evening someone strolled into the barracks with a camera and offered to do pictures of us to send home, I had a few done which I still have I think, we found out later it was the Camp Regimental Police Sergeant, a nice little sideline with a continual supply of homesick squaddies every fortnight. There was an amusing incident early on at Rhyl, one Scottish NS had somehow escaped buying coat hangers at Oswestry so he decided he would make his own! He procured some wood which was unfortunately straight, made a hole near each end and threaded sisal string in a loop underneath to hang his trousers on. At the next mornings locker inspection when everyone had to lay all the kit in a locker the same way, Wally and his coat hangers were not appreciated, I think he did eventually buy some but it was to a lot of grumbling, he thought his efforts were admirable. If ever Wally from Oban ever reads this he’ll remember! Most old soldiers will remember the bedroll and the attempts to get it right, this consisted of making a nice neat sandwich of two sheets and three blankets, one of the blankets being wrapped around the others . In typical army fashion the bedrolls are never ‘right’ at the first attempt so they are strewn across the floor , or as in a few instances thrown out through the window, locker layouts are never to the photograph they are copied from and so their contents are tipped out. This is of course systematic regimenting but the message gets through and eventually everyone has a kit layout the same as all the others. Although we didn’t do it, we saw some locker layouts where the ‘regimenting’ was carried to extraordinary lengths, the one I recall was to see an ordinary can of BRASSO having all the paint stripped off the outside except for the letters RA , “no mistaking which Regiment you are in lad “ On top of your own personal locker stood your large pack, small pack and mess tins, all neatly lined up and checked with a length of string down the length of the room! These were a devil to get looking square, padded out with cardboard etc so the effect was they were full of something, the mess tins polished with Brasso etc.

One Saturday night when some of the recruits had been into Rhyl and had a drink or two, someone decided it was fun to throw a pillow around ! My first move was to remove all the stuff from the top of my locker, it had taken hours to get right and I didn’t want that again. Big Jock McKenna realized he had a skittle alley to go at and soon most got the message, except George my erstwhile friend from Oswestry, who had his kit knocked off his cupboard about four times before the penny dropped. The party finally turned sour when someone turned off the lights and a broom handle joined the objects flying about. So this was what a tin hat was for! Under the bed was the only place to be that night

It would be about Easter before we had any leave to come so Saturday night was the time to go to Rhyl and sample the night life. The only place I remember with any clarity was the New Inn where a room upstairs had been equipped with a juke box and seemed to be used only by soldiers. I think the landlord didn’t want any of the riff raff with his regular customers. I went back to Rhyl once and the New Inn was a shop The music of the time was ‘One way Ticket to the Blues’ the B side of ‘Oh Carol’ by Neil Sedaka and Emile Ford with ‘What do you want to make those eyes etc.’ Easter came and I think we had travel passes for this weekend so home we went for our friends and families to see how smart we looked in uniform which of course they did but I couldn’t wait to get mine off and get into ‘civvies’ and relax. On my return I had been warned that taxis were in short supply so the trick was to get off the train as quick as possible and get into a taxi with as many as the driver would let cram in and in my enthusiasm I leapt off when it was still doing about 60mph and found that ammunition boots aren’t very good when you are running flat out on a railway platform, however, it worked and I was first in the taxi. On the way back the driver told us that there had been a mutiny at this camp in 1919, Canadian soldiers were billeted here before being sent home and weren’t happy with the delay. At some point around now one soldier from our squad, next room did a runner, he had not been married long and had a baby and the separation got to him. He was brought back a few days later, given a bed space in our room but after parade each day could visit his wife who had been found accommodation in Rhyl and be back at night in barracks.

So, at night when most of us would be asleep, Gnr Cutts would come back with his big size 12 boots and proceed to tell anyone who would listen all about his evening at ‘home’, of course his boots would be the last thing he removed so by then most of us were wide awake again. We were allowed home all the weekends after Easter, at 12.00 noon we would be off, because of the shortage of hard cash I decided I would try the old servicemans dodge of ‘thumbing’ it so, along with others, I would stand on the main road outside camp with the digit raised. It worked quite well, to Chester or Manchester first, I’ve walked that road through Hyde a time or two, then to Sheffield or Barnsley over the Pennines. From Rhyl across the country to Doncaster and home for tea, I allowed myself the luxury of a bus when I got as far as Sheffield or Barnsley. How times have changed, no-one would dream of giving a ‘thumber’ a lift nowadays. The return journey couldn’t be risked with the ‘thumb’ so the train it was, usually assisted with a few bob from Dad.

During this period we were given the basics of drilling with a rifle, the lovely Lee Enfield .303 and being allowed to fire it, although artillerymen shouldn’t ever see the enemy, but if you do I suppose it’s handy to have something that might frighten him. Of course to a Gunner, a rifle is never a ‘gun’! A gun is a huge thing usually on wheels that lobs huge pieces of stuff at an enemy that should be miles away. The punishment for calling a rifle a ‘gun’ was a few laps of the square with a ‘gun’ held over your head, most of us got the message quickly.

The final disaster at Rhyl was on our final passing out parade when Sergeant Senior put in an appearance (he did pop in from time to time and was a notoriously bad shouter of commands on the square being very hard to hear). All went well ‘till we got to diagonal marching when he was shouting into the wind! At the command, one third of the squad went off at a tangent to the left, one third went off to the right and the rest hadn’t heard a thing so blithely carried on, all straining their ears for the sound of anything that sounded like an order. It must have been a sight! Of course we didn’t win the best squad award, whatever it was, but neither were we taken round the back and shot so all was well that ended in a mess.

At the end of about 18 weeks in the army we were considered safe enough to be allowed out to a ‘service’ regiment, I was to go to 4th Regiment RHA along with 3 others from our group to somewhere in West Germany as it then was called. It appeared that the RHA was a bit up market from the RA and had their own cap badge and traditions. Big Jock McKenna and Jackson from Coldstream were to go to the SAS , George my Oswestry mate went to the 1st RHA and a Welsh lad who’s mother was a widow got a home posting somewhere in Wales, the rest I’ve forgotten I found out recently that the only ‘regular’ soldier in the squad stayed at Rhyl as an instructor! Had we known at the time we would have called it favouritism! So off we went to the RA Depot at Woolwich, tied a label to our kit and went off on a fortnights embarkation leave.

Woolwich to Hohne

Arriving back at Woolwich after two weeks leave and I was back with another crowd of new faces, fortunately a lot of the old faces were in there with us so making friends wasn’t necessary. As it happened some others out of the barrack room at Rhyl were present, oddly, there were none out of the other half of Echo squad in the other barrack room so names must have been selected in alphabetical order and not for particular skills, except of course for the only regular soldier in the squad who somehow managed to get a posting at the training camp in Rhyl and the Welshman Hughes who had a widowed mother and was placed somewhere near home, the Army did have a heart after all! Although we knew we were going to Germany we were aware that we were going to different units and would be split up once there, four of us to the 4th Regiment RHA.

The time at Woolwich was a bit easier than being in training, since it was the Depot for the RA there were soldiers there for two main reasons, many leaving the Army after their time as NS or regulars, and such as we who were just beginning our service life. The one thing I do recall from Woolwich was the food, it was amazing, I don’t know why but there it was. The barracks were three floors if I remember correctly and were said to have dated from the Napoleonic Wars, the barracks were behind the Regimental Square and the Main Gate faced the Barracks. Because of the number of men in transit it seemed that there too many soldiers for the work that had to be done. I remember spending a couple of days at the gymnasium, scraping the wooden bars on the equipment such as parallel bars, to do this meant scrounging round on the ground outside for pieces of broken glass that had a keen edge and removing the outer layer of dirt on the bars ‘till they were white! How many others had done this before me? Of course once the bars were used again or just left idle for a time they would go dark again and some others in transit would spend a day or two looking for pieces of broken glass! The bars were probably three inches diameter originally but were down to two inches by 1960.

The good thing about these days was the weather, we were nearing spring and we were outdoors. It was here I came up against the iron rigidity of the Army. Being outside and warm, it seemed natural to remove your jacket and get your sleeves rolled up, but we were informed in no uncertain terms by the WOII PTI that shirt sleeve order had not come out in orders yet so it was down with sleeves and on with the jackets. We also did a spell in a cookhouse that was being renovated and spent some time cleaning all the accumulated grease from the cookers etc even though they were being discarded. I think that this was the time Woolwich was being totally renovated, we did spend some time cleaning the new accommodation, very smart it seemed to us. As a weekend came along we had to do our turn at Guard Duty, Pete Graham, my fellow Yorkshireman, and I were detailed for Friday/Saturday with a practice on Friday morning. We practised on the Holy of Holies, the Front Parade at Woolwich. When in two ranks doing ‘Open Order’ only one rank moves, front or back I don’t remember and I was in the rank that moved! When it came to the real thing on Fiday evening I was in the rank that stood still! Or should have stood still, I did a nice ‘Open Order’ all on my own! I was threatened with everything except being deported to the Colonies or shot, which turned out to be a bit of hot air because the Guard Sergeant was one of those being demobbed and wasn’t really bothered and it was never mentioned again. At the time I had visions of everyone in the Royal Artillery with a rank higher than Major General was watching that guard mounting on that Friday evening.

The Guard passed as all Guards do, very tiring and it was the Saturday I recall that the Rugby League Cup final was at Wembley and Wakefield Trinity were playing and I had friends who were supporters. Whilst on guard at the gate I watched a block of flats opposite and seeing all the lights go out one by one, lucky beggars. Being from the frozen North I had never been to London before so Pete Graham and I went into London on Sunday and saw the sights. The night before we left for Germany we went for a drink in the nearest pub and I heard ‘My old Man’s a Dustman’ by L. Donegan which had been recorded at the Gaumont Cinema Doncaster which made me homesick. One of the lads in our barrack room was in the pub and singing his head off but must have got homesick too because by morning he was gone. Our draft No. was TBDPN which I have never forgotten for some reason and we left Woolwich for Harwich to the Hook of Holland on the Empire Parkeston. From the Hook of Holland we caught the ‘Blue Train’ to Germany which must have gone by a very roundabout route and was the worst journey in my entire life to be repeated twice more.

155mm Self Propelled Howitzer - Looking down the Barrel - Brian Bettridge.

The four of us survivors from Echo Squad and others from who knows where were met at some railway station in Germany, Uelzen I think, by a Sergeant and a L/Bdr
wearing white blancoed webbing . The Regiment we were to join were away on exercise on Luneburg Heath and the Regimental Police Sergeant and his L/Bdr were our guardians for the time being. We were herded into what seemed a lovely two storey building, lovely because it wasn’t the ubiquitous draughty ‘spider’. From there to the QM’s stores for bedding and then being allowed to bunk down anywhere in our new home without being in alphabetical order! Once again, lots of new faces to get to know but still the original four of us from Echo Squad. I remember the next morning being awoken by the biggest racket I had ever heard. From the window we could see American tanks by the score passing on the main road which was next to our barracks. Evidently Luneberg Heath was a large training area for NATO and all NATO forces came at different times to practise. That first morning at Hohne was a rude awakening to the RHA! Around thirty of us paraded that first day, never having seen most of the squad before the previous evening, lined up ‘tallest on the left and numbered off from one to three’ which is the Army way of getting all the tall soldiers at the front of a column down to the shortest at the back. I always felt sorry for the tallest, he was always the first to be seen on an inspection and set the tone for the rest! So we stood on the Regimental square, all bulled up in our finery to meet our nemesis, the RSM, later to be christened ‘Guts and Gaiters’ by Doug Lewis.

I have never seen, in all my life, a display like this monster of an RSM! We could have turned out in Savile Row clothes for all the good it did, he only got to number two on the front rank, with eyes bulging out of his head and a voice that could break windows at fifty paces he ranted and railed at these two poor soldiers, both berets went across the square somewhere, ties were flicked out, belts taken off and, given the chance, would have been used to flog these two unfortunate wretches to death. The RSM, WOI McCarthy, carried a wonderful stick with a brass handle; and Regimental coat of arms insignia and for a moment I thought he was about to bludgeon someone to oblivion with this fine instrument. We were nothing but a scruffy rabble and he was wasting his time going further than the second man. I was further down the squad being around 5’10” and my knees were trembling ! We were marched off and then got a dressing down from the Regimental Police Sergeant Foad for letting him down and, because we were so sloppy, we would have reveille an hour earlier and if our drill didn’t improve we would go back to the dreaded 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3. Of course this is standard Army procedure to put the fear of God into you and bring you into line and so eventually it did. The Royal Horse Artillery believes itself to be a cut above the ‘ordinary’ artillery, and so the standards it sets are higher, at the time it seemed it was my misfortune to be sent to this unit , but with hindsight I’m glad I had the experience.

So, on with the daily parades with the RSM, and gradually as the time went on he got further and further down the squad until at last, the day before we went to our occupations for the next eighteen months, he finally got to the last man. This took around ten days but the work that went into men and kit in that ten days was unbelievable. It didn’t help matters when it came to arms drill to find that we had practised with the lovely .303 Lee Enfield at Rhyl only to find that front line service units were equipped with the new SLR, more than one of us got smacked under the chin with the handle which the Lee Enfield didn’t have and the SLR rifle wasn’t carried on the shoulder any more. We also had to contend with the ‘soldier who was a part time scarecrow’ in civvie street! No matter what anyone did he just couldn’t look smart, we all helped him with his kit each night, pressing trousers, cleaning brasses, blancoing belt and gaiters but it never really got through and I think even the RSM settled for what he got. It didn’t help at pay parade to find this same soldier, who was a regular, drawing about three times what the NS men did.

During these ten days one of our squad was whisked away from us, the Regimental Pay Office run by L/Cpl Coverdale was short of a clerk and this lucky man was chosen. Seeing him in the cookhouse at meal times he told us what a grand life it was, watching us stamp around the square, often in the rain while he watched from a nice dry office. An idea hit me, I was a signaller and always would be wouldn’t I? Well, if one could do it why not two? We were all interviewed individually by the RSM about what we were to do, and when my turn came I said as innocently as I could that I wouldn’t mind working in an office because I had worked in a factory up to the present . I don’t think I fooled the RSM for a minute but there it was, I’d put my cards on the table so time would tell. On the day of the passing out parade, by then I think we had moved up a notch in the smartness league, we went through our paces with no trouble, hiding the ‘human scarecrow’ in the middle somewhere so he would be less conspicuous. After the parade we were all informed where we would spend the next eighteen months of our lives, and I couldn’t believe my luck! I had been given an office job working for the Technical Adjutant in the MT Office whatever that may mean, the whole squad was then marched around the camp with soldiers being dropped off at their various quarters. I think I was just about the last to arrive at my destination and here I blotted my book! Being hounded from A to B for the last four or five months I had finally reached my destination and I had forgotten I was still in the army and I relaxed! I was guided in the direction of an office and I must have drooped my way in to be immediately ‘gripped’ by a seated WOI behind his desk who gave me what for because I hadn’t respected his rank! He was quite right of course, I was a rock bottom Gunner and he was as near to a Commissioned Officer as it gets! This was TRQMS J.B. Dingle and he eventually did turn out to be fine, ( a career soldier who did eventually make Major) he was fair with us in all things. After my dressing down I was eventually taken to a room down the corridor from the offices where there was an empty bed space in a room with Gnr Taff Phillips, who only had about 2 or 3 weeks to do.

Centurion used as Observation Posts

Here was luxury indeed, two men to a room, this was heaven compared to having 17 or 18 roommates. I brought all my kit over from the temporary accommodation , I settled in and made ready for my new life for the next 20 or so months.
It appeared that the Technical Adjutant was in fact a Technical Quartermaster, instead of boots and socks it was spanners, tank wheels and all manner of mechanical tackle that a mechanised artillery unit needed. I met the Technical Adjutant the next day, at that time a Captain A.W. Coleman MBE RHA and to this day remains one of the finest men I ever met, he came through the ranks and always managed to understand what it was like at the bottom of the pile, he did eventually become a Lieut Colonel. I believe he passed away in 2003 and would have loved to have met him again, I did try to contact Mrs Gwen Coleman his wife but she didn’t reply when I wrote to her. A fortnight after arriving I went on a ten day typing course and Mrs Coleman was the instructor, It’s something I have never forgotten and always think of her when I sit at a keyboard.

I began work in the office on Monday morning and was told the routine of what to do by Terry Harrington the clerk before me. The system worked like this, an item was issued from stores and immediately a replacement was ordered. My job was to take the daily requisitions and enter them in a ledger, from there the ledger went to the typist, Taff Butler who typed the order and off it went in the post to whichever Ordnance Park in the UK dealt with the items being ordered . I remember Chilwell and Donnington were two of these depots. The typist was the senior clerk and was due to be demobbed so the clerk became the typist and a new clerk started and so on. The Department also handled all the fuel supplies and three or four Volkswagen cars, a Volkswagen minibus and the CO’s car, the drivers of these vehicles also lived in the same building, along with the other clerk and the storemen and the NCO in charge of the Petrol dump.

I was confronted with the old problem of making friends again and initially tried to keep in contact with the old team from Rhyl but they were scattered around the Regiment. Gnr Graham was at F Bty with Badger, Hitchcock was with G Bty and Taff Lewis was at HQ Bty. For the first week we kept in touch in the evenings and at the weekend but gradually the realization came that your loyalties lay with your new barrack mates. Over the time at Hohne we still saw each other in the Mess and around camp and always spoke but time had moved us on.

After my first few days I found myself summoned over to HQ Bty to meet the Signals Officer, it appeared that I was to be ‘shared’ by the Signals Section and the Tech Adj. Dept! This was of course no way to operate and after a time the requests for me to report to Signals Section died away. I think Capt Coleman just kept making it difficult for me to be available and eventually the Signals Officer gave up trying.

I was left on my own room for a very short time after Taff Phillips was demobbed, another storeman was due to go out, Terry Harragan, and this would have left Taff Thomas on his own so I moved in with him As various people moved out to civvy life their clandestine ‘perks’ came to light and I inherited two cigarette customers. All soldiers in Germany were given a cigarette coupon allowance that got them cheap cigarettes, the trick was to get all the non smokers to surrender their coupons, buy the cheap cigarettes and move them on, the regimental barber, a German, took some, the waiter in the NATO Officers Mess took the others. The NATO Officers Mess opposite our block was used by the Officers of the Regiments, usually tankies, who were on Luneberg Heath on exercise. At various times of the year it would be visited by Americans, Belgians, Canadians, the Dutch and of course other British Regiments. I remember the Royal Scots Greys being their once and one of the officers was a Royal with a grey Jaguar, not sure which one, probably the Duke of Kent. One night, after going out for a few drinks and returning to barracks, someone decided to make it into a party, bottles appeared from nowhere, probably being saved to go on leave. Someone brought a bunch of flowers in, Alan Fussel I think, the problem was they still had the roots on and a couple of pounds of German soil, any polish on the floor was well and truly ground off by morning. One of the officers from the NATO Mess had heard the noise and came across and joined in, unheard of! He wore an eye patch over one eye, I’ve often wondered since who he was and what became of him. The opportunities to have a drink were few, on NS money you didn’t get legless very often.

The camp at Hohne was very close to the village of Belsen and the infamous concentration camp of that name and a visit is a must being that near. Not a lot to see at the camp, obviously it had been tidied after the war but the sight of the mass graves was still moving, the area had an ominous silence as though the flora and fauna knew what had happened there.

Sometime during this first year Terry Harrington, the typist, had been helping the storemen load and unload stores, I did it in the morning, he did the afternoon. At some point he had fallen with his leg held by a tank /gun wheel so he finished up in hospital. At this time I became the only clerk in the office and proceeded to try and do the two jobs, clerk and typist which often meant working in the evenings and at weekends. Not being a martyr there were some things that didn’t get done but because Terry was still in hospital the powers that be decided I’d earned a stripe so I became a Lance Bombardier for the princely sum of 1/- a day. The big advantage was that you didn’t have to queue at the J/NCO’s Mess

Lance Bombardier Roy Hoggart

.At some point during this time we had a bit of an event! During the day we had been warned that there was something afoot and in the evening the panic started, we all reported to the guardroom and small arms were issued, a rifle and bayonet apiece, no bullets. Two of us were assigned to go somewhere with Sgt Hyde the REME Storeman in an Austin Champ with a trailer. We arrived at some stores, in the dark, and loaded boxes etc into the trailer, what the boxes held we didn’t know at this time. I should have guessed because the stores they came out of were underground! On the return journey we were told it was dynamite to destroy the petrol and oil stores !! All the way back I watched this trailer bumping and banging its way back to camp. All this, we were told, in case the Russians come over1. I am assured by John B. Travers of the Royal Signals who was stationed there at the time, though I didn’t know him, that it was the day the Berlin Wall went up and this caused the excitement. We just thought it was an exercise and those boxes in the trailer were empty, weren’t they?.

The first Christmas away from home promised to be a dull affair but at the time I did some baby sitting for S/Sgt Stan Masson and his wife Jean and they invited me to their apartment for Christmas dinner so it turned out not so bad. I have tried to contact Stan Masson, later Captain, but there has been a family row and he hasn’t replied to my letter. I have made contact with one of his sons, whom I baby sat, and both he and his brother became Officers in the RA. I had my first leave after Christmas and before leaving I had forgotten the golden rule! Never leave your suitcase unlocked and unattended, I got home to find my case full of junk, including a 2lb hammer which I had carried all the way from Germany, it’s still in the garage now. I should have known, I’d done it to others when they had leave, it was quite a communal event having leave.


155mm Self Propelled Howitzers

In June/July of 1961 the 4th Regt RHA was moved to Hong Kong and only having 6 months to do I was to remain at Hohne, as were any others with such a short term of service left. The place in 7th Armoured Bde was to be taken by 25 Regiment RA and the advance party arrived during May. My roommate Taff Thomas had been demobbed so this space was taken by Brian Bettridge from Sutton Coldfield, a great bloke who now lives in South Africa and with whom I’ve stayed in contact. One night I was Duty Clerk and sleeping in the Office when someone came in the building in the early hours, and having had a drink or two, proceeded to kick the metal kettle up and down the corridor outside and since the corridors were tiled to head height it made quite a din. I stood it for a few minutes and being the NCO in the block decided I should do something about it so reluctantly I rolled out of bed looking for my PT shoes which in the army served as slippers. Before I found them I heard a door open, the noisemaker said ‘Hello Brian’ there was a smack and all went quiet.
I got back into bed wondering what the morning would bring. I had just moved my bed the next morning back into my room when the door flew open and there was the reveller from the night before with the loveliest shiner I’ve ever seen. He asked if he deserved it, I told him he did, and he accepted his summary punishment. He was the clerk in the office with me and was asked next morning by Sgt Coulbeck how it happened and he said he’d walked into a door so there was no trouble.

25 Regt took over and I must say they weren’t quite as sharp as the 4th had been, I don’t know what they were like with the guns but their general standards were not quite as high as the 4th. The new Technical Quartermaster was Captain Payne, a bit of a dour man after Captain Coleman, his TRQMS was WOII Heaver. Capt. Payne was a bit of a stickler for economy and returning one evening to his office found both of the outside doors wide open, he closed them to find a jerrycan of petrol behind each. He informed the Redcaps who kept watch and grabbed our late night reveller of black eye fame when he came to collect them. It appears he was going home to Blighty on leave with a friend who had a car and decided to do it the cheap way. He was locked up then released to work in the Regimental Office and finally got a posting to SHAPE in Paris, who says crime doesn’t pay?

The day drew near when I would be homeward bound, one of the last acts was to receive a sheet with all the departments listed from where you could have kit belonging to the army and a signature from these departments was necessary before you could go. It was traditional that you waved this piece of paper in the mess so no-one was in any doubt that you were finally on your way home. Finally, HQ Battery orders for the 4th of January had me on release on the 5th along with Taff Lewis from Rhyl I copied the orders and still have them. On the two spells of leave I had the journey home and back was the repeat of the Empire Parkestone and the blue train trip and all in uniform. Going home now was strange because we were flying home and in civvies and once at the airport were not treated like squaddies but like ordinary people1 As the bus left Hohne to go to Hanover Airport I met my old Rhyl colleagues Pete Graham and Taff Lewis with release days the same as mine. We said goodbye in London to Taff Lewis and then Pete and I at Kings Cross station, he lived in Scarbrough and wanted a train to York, I had a straight run to Doncaster. My father was a coal miner and I gave him my best boots for work, he said they were too heavy and didn’t know how I had worn them. At the time I wanted nothing more of the army but once back at work in the factory I realized that it was all just the same really, being in the army as a conscript gave me a chip on my shoulder I suppose.
Now I have reached retirement age I look back and perhaps the army could have been a good life, ah well, you are dealt a hand and once the cards are played you can’t go back.

Ray and Linda


Of all the people I met in the army I have only kept in touch with my roommate of the last six months, he moved to South Africa and has done well for himself. I did meet Pete Graham a few times in 1962/3 but whatever we had as young squaddies seemed to have vanished and so we dropped out of touch. I have recently been on various of the old soldier websites but have only found two old acquaintances, both from Rhyl and one of these I email now and then, we exchanged photographs and of course I foolishly expected him to look the same but like me he was rounder and with a few more wrinkles. Looking back to those days usually sighing for lost youth but I’m glad I did it and tend to feel sorry for any contemporaries who missed it. The youth of today wouldn’t do it, they’re more accustomed to doing as they want, not as they’re told. After all this you have to remember the conflicts that took place and the National Servicemen that didn’t come home, all for a “pound and a few coppers” a week.


Copyright Text & Images: Ray Hoggart

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