Tuesday, 24 June 2014

National Service 1953-1955: a one-eyed volunteer. Royal Tank Regiment, 5th Battalion. Cambrai Day. REME, Honiton. CCF. WOSB. Mons Officer Cadet School. Centurion Tanks. Foreign Legion. Korea. R & R. Libya, Moriarty, Cardinal Puff and other adventures. Bursar's Checklist. Wrekin College. Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.Truro School.

My husband Bob's ploy to get into the army despite only having one eye gave him happy memories of his National Service for the rest of his life. Years later, in retirement, he wrote about his early life, and his time in the Royal Tank Regiment, mainly in Korea. It is an interesting history of how the Army trained its National Servicemen from 1939 to 1960.

Bob's involvement with the Combined Cadet Force at Wrekin College where he had been a CSM was invaluable in terms of familiarity with uniform, drill & small arms. Most importantly it taught him how to master the problem of being a left-eyed soldier operating weapons designed for the right-eyed. Bob's path through National Service showed his commitment to achieving his objectives and stood him in good stead for the rest of his life. 

Bob went up to Cambridge in October 1955, reading Geography. He played cricket for his college, Gonville and Caius, his strength being as a fast bowler. His greatest regret was that he did not gain a Blue, but having only one eye did limit him.

After his degree Bob was articled to Stephenson Smart Chartered Accountants in Lincoln, qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1961, then trained as a Management Consultant with PE, (Production Engineering), working in the UK and Nigeria for 3 years before taking up management posts in Industry with Unilever abroad and in the UK. He ended up as Bursar of Truro School, in Cornwall, where he spent over 20 happy years. He wrote A Bursar's Checklist which is also a very good read.

A One-Eyed Volunteer by Robert Oram, 

25.12.1933 – 2.2.2007. RIP

This autobiographical tale of my early life may be of interest to my family.
 Whatever, it has been fun in the writing! 
Truro, 2004

I was born on Christmas Day 1933 in Llanelli to Welsh parents. Both were younger siblings of the large families common in Victorian times. My mother Vera was a Roberts and her father Evan was a local hero, having played rugby for Wales. I have his cap for 1886-7, a much prized family heirloom. My father Gavin was a qualified engineer aspiring to management. I had an older sister Vivienne but another sister Isabel had sadly died whilst still a baby. My parents are now buried with her in Felinfoel.

Galle Lighthouse built by Gavin C. Oram

The depressed early thirties were hard for ambitious young professionals but Dad successfully applied for an appointment to manage the Government Factory in Ceylon, then still part of the British Empire. My first conscious memory is of playing with Vivienne in the garden of our bungalow in Colombo. Dad’s responsibilities included the maintenance of public buildings and the improvement of roads and bridges. His major achievement was to build the lighthouse at Galle, a notable landmark to this day and which still bears a plaque with his name.

Dad thrived in Ceylon and even mastered Singhalese but unfortunately my mother, who had always been of delicate health, found the tropics too taxing and was continuously ill, so much so that Vivienne and I were sent to a convent in Nuwara Eliya. When it was suspected that war was imminent in Europe we reluctantly in 1939 returned to England on one of the last passenger ships to make it through the Med before hostilities began. We were even buzzed by an Italian fighter!

Dad had been transferred to the government armaments works at Woolwich Arsenal and we lived in neighbouring Bexley Heath. When the blitz started we suffered the routine of long days and nights in shelters listening to the bombs. I can remember my mother shaking with fright. We sometimes watched the dogfights and cheered when a Spitfire chased a Jerry low over the rooftops, as if at a football match. But mostly, it was hell!

One fateful day during a lull in the bombing my right eye was accidentally shot by an arrow whilst playing with other neighbourhood children. Because of the blitz, it was with great difficulty that the medics got me to Moorfields Eye Hospital in the City but they could not save the eye and I was doomed at the age of seven to use an artificial one thereafter. This was when my troubles began.

Dad was sent to run a factory making ammunition in Cheshire and I went to the local primary school where I was subjected to terrible bullying, not physically but very much mentally. Because I was “different” some pupils picked on me to mock my disability. They would follow me around the playground chanting abuse. Children can be really cruel. Sometimes I ran away home during the school day. My mother complained to the teachers who feebly tried to protect me but to no avail. School for me during this period was desperately unhappy.

Not surprisingly perhaps, I failed the Eleven Plus examination when the time came. But it was to be a blessing in disguise because my parents then decided to send me to a boarding school at the age of twelve. The choice was Wrekin, then a minor public school close to the mountain of that name in Shropshire. It was to be my lucky break!

From the moment I arrived to the day I left, not once did any fellow pupil or member of staff even mention my “disability”, leave alone mock me for it. Wrekin at that time was sport mad. PE was obligatory during morning breaks regardless of weather. I was good at cricket because I could bowl fast. I was also good at rugby because I was a sprinter and played on the wing. At athletics I was a good jumper. Ability at games ensured that you were one of the chaps. For the first time I was not treated as a disabled freak. Once during a close and intense cricket match my eye popped out as I bowled a particularly fast delivery. I picked it up and reinserted it. No one said anything or even indicated that something unusual had occurred. If anyone was embarrassed, it was I.

At that time, every schoolboy knew that they faced two years National Service. We  heard tales of Old Boys experiences, even killed in action in Malaya or some such trouble spot. The school took the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) very seriously and every Tuesday afternoon we donned uniform and did square bashing, weapons training, signals or tactics. The officers were young members of staff recently demobilised. They had seen active service and a couple actually had Military Crosses so the “tuition” was real.

There was no question in my own mind that I should not serve in common with my pals! Not to do so would to me be shameful. A few weeks after leaving school I was summoned to a medical. I cannot remember what was in my mind when I attended the examination; it was a complete blank probably, or with some trepidation. But when I got there it was immediately obvious that chaos prevailed, the staff were so overworked. When it came to my eye tests the medic told me to hold a card over each eye and read the screen. Without thinking I contrived only to cover my blind eye and in the confusion nobody noticed. Thus I was passed fully fit with perfect eyesight and as far as my military record would be concerned, QED! I knew there had been a couple of famous one-eyed commanders in WW2 but they had lost theirs in combat and were heroes. I was an impostor!

In late summer of 1953 I was called up to join the army at the REME Basic Training Battalion in Honiton. Do not ask why they thought I was suitable for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers! We were billeted in barrack huts and it was immediately apparent who the few former school boarders were. The majority of conscripts had clearly lived with Mum all their lives and many blubbed themselves to sleep or cried out for them in their dreams, poor bastards. Each morning at the crack of dawn, the platoon corporal would stamp in noisily, screaming “hands off cocks, on socks” or some similar exhortation.

I now had to cope with being a soldier. My experience in the CCF was invaluable of course. Drilling on the parade ground was familiar as was most small arms training. I had learned to shoot the Lee Enfield rifle left-handed with passable accuracy. The Sten gun was used like a hosepipe anyway and the 2 inch mortar and lobbing grenades, the latter like heavy cricket balls, no problem. The only difficulty was the Bren light machine gun because its sights were on the left of the barrel. Luckily a Para weapons' instructor had given me the tip to shoot using the left shoulder. Apparently there were a lot of “left eyed” soldiers! For the rest, our training was infantry tactics, dreaded route marches, assault courses, PE and games to get us fully fit. I have never been in such fine physical condition as I was in the army.

Much is made nowadays of the widespread practice of  “sickies” when people call in on the slightest pretext to say that they are too ill to work. The Army had a simple and very effective Catch 22 way of dealing with this ploy. In order to report sick, you first had to manhandle all your kit and deposit it at the guardroom for safe keeping. Bedding, webbing, rifle, steel helmet, boots, the lot. Unsurprisingly, the only soldiers to go sick were too ill to move and were ambulance cases!

Within some weeks a few of us were interviewed to ask if we would like to be considered for officer training. Why me? It was obviously a combination of education and the fact that I had risen to the rank of CSM in the CCF. In due time we “potential officers” were sent to a War Office Selection Board (WOSB) for assessment over a three-day course to test our leadership skills and ability to use initiative. There were also weird psychology tests given by quite spooky “trick cyclists” and we were watched to see how we mixed socially. As an ex-public school prefect I had no difficulty in bullshitting my way through to pass! Wrekin had prepared me well.

When basic training ended I was sent to Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot which specialised in passing out officers for Artillery and Armoured Corps regiments. At WOSB I had given the RAC as my preference for the most spurious of reasons, namely that if I had reluctantly to go into battle then it must be preferable to ride rather than walk. Such was my simple, misguided thinking!

Apart from being trained in leadership and how to be an officer I also had basic tank training in driving and maintenance routines, signals procedure and wireless operating, gunnery, map reading and armoured fighting tactics. We officer cadets had great fun charging all over Salisbury Plain in Daimler armoured cars and on the tank gunnery range at Lulworth Cove firing live ammo. The main battle tank at that time was the Centurion with a 20 pound cannon. These made a tremendous crack when fired and huge flashes and fumes enveloped us. I am still partially deaf in my left ear. But there was nothing in the training that a determined one-eyed man could not do.

At some point, officer cadets had to be allocated to regiments. In some cases this was obvious as with sons following fathers; but mine had been a Sapper. So I was interviewed by a charming retired colonel who in the kindest way possible assured me that unless I liked horses a lot but more importantly had a private income, then I “might not be happy” in a cavalry regiment. I got the message! The “poor man’s cavalry” consisted of eight regular Royal Tank Regiments at that time. Most were based in England or Germany but one was in Egypt, one in Hong Kong and one, the Fifth, in Korea. Without hesitation I opted for the Fifth.  The choice was not out of Boys’ Own gung-ho heroics. A cease fire was already in place and peace talks were ongoing at Panmunjon. No, this was a chance to see half the world at HM expense in the days when cheap global travel was still unknown, leave alone going by sea! In due course I “passed out” from Mons.  Vivienne and her husband George kindly came to the parade as my parents were temporarily abroad. I then went home on embarkation leave.

Cambrai Day in the Sergeants’ Mess
Bob is second on the right.

I was now a Second Lieutenant, a “one-pipper”. Tank officers wear the same black beret as the other ranks; made famous by Monty who adopted it as his preferred headgear at El Alamein. They are obviously more practical in tanks than the standard service cap normally worn. Officers also carry long ash plants instead of the usual short swagger stick. This is in memory of those brave men at the WW1 battle of Cambrai  who had to walk in front of their tanks with wooden staffs to prod the depth of the mud to avoid bogging down.  The regimental march is Willie but when we sang it we improvised with the words: “It wasn’t the Yanks who won the war, it was my boy Willie!” Cambrai Day is every 20 November when the officers serve the other ranks at a celebratory meal. Much beer is drunk. That evening officers are traditionally guests in the Sergeants’ Mess where the object of the veteran NCOs is to get the young subalterns paralytic. They often succeed.

Soon my movement order came to join the troopship Dilwara in Southampton bound for points East. On board the days were spent in leisurely exercise and games with the odd parade for inspection. In reality it was a glorified cruise which today would cost thousands! As we were about to enter Port Said we saw a man in the water waving frantically. We assumed he had somehow fallen overboard. The ship stopped and a lifeboat was lowered to fish him out. He turned out to be a soldier in the French Foreign Legion who had literally jumped ship, thoughtfully with a life jacket! They were destined for French Indo China where the Legion was fighting for its life besieged in Dien Bien Phu by the communists. Not surprisingly, he did not fancy his chances and deck officers told us that it was not uncommon to pick up French deserters at that time. From Port Said via the Suez canal to Aden, thence Colombo where I looked up Olive, a widow who had been a family friend in our Ceylon days. That evening as we headed south past Galle I was proud to see Dad’s lighthouse reassuringly winking away. Next stop Singapore then Hong Kong where I met David, a school buddy who was serving there as a subaltern in the North Staffordshire Regiment. Finally to Kure in Japan for transit to Korea.  

Although under the overall authority of the UN, we were part of the Commonwealth Division located just northeast of Seoul. In addition to British outfits, there were Australian, New Zealand and Canadian units. On the Division’s left flank were the US Marine Corps and to the right the Republic of Korea Army (ROK). The Fifth Tanks were based at Choksong in the shadow of Gloster Hill so named when the “Glorious Glosters” were all but wiped out there in the Imjin battle of 1951.

To this day I thank my lucky stars for landing up quite by chance with the Fifth! The Regiment was immediately welcoming of this rookie subaltern, kindly, considerate even seemingly grateful that I had come to help them out! It was the same treatment with all National Servicemen. But they were not daft enough to entrust me with my own troop of four tanks and fifteen crewmen. I was assigned to C (Charlie) Squadron to understudy an experienced troop leader. Denys was my mentor, a full ex-Sandhurst Lieutenant. We became good friends.

The Regiment was entirely under canvas and I shared a tent with Bill, another National Serviceman. Unhappily, a multitude of vile rats also considered it home and we could hear them at night tearing savagely about.

The Fifth was a proud and highly professional outfit. It had fought its way from Egypt to Tunis with the Desert Rats and landed on D-day plus 1 in Normandy after a short spell in Italy, finishing their war eventually in Hamburg but liberating Belsen on the way. The CO had a DSO and all the squadron leaders and a few Captains had MCs. Several senior NCOs had MMs. The majority were career soldiers with us National Servicemen making up the numbers.

The demilitarised zone (DMZ) bordered the front line that had existed when the ceasefire came into force. It consisted of barbed wire and minefields and was dotted with watch towers manned by the various infantry regiments to guard against surprise attack. We were to support these troops in such an event, acting as forward artillery.

The tank park was muddy paddy and the tanks themselves were caked in the stuff. We spent our time on inspections or out on manoeuvres  along the banks of Imjin River, on the gunnery range or playing team games. But mostly we were on tank maintenance work to ensure they were battle-ready. Denys quickly taught me by example that an officer was expected to pull his weight like any other crewman, however hard or dirty the task!

Out patrolling the Imjin one day my driver, who was an inexperienced conscript trooper, had a brainstorm and somehow put the tank in reverse, compounding his error by pulling the wrong stick with the result that we slewed backwards into the river. I traversed the turret to get the gun out of the water and in so doing inadvertently wrote off the Browning machine gun which I had naively placed below to keep it out of the monsoon-like rain we had experienced. When we got back to camp having been towed unceremoniously out by the REME recovery unit, to their guffaws about “women tankie drivers”, I was up before my Squadron Leader Jackie and his 2i/c Roy charged with gross negligence. I had no case to answer. I would have been ridiculed if I had tried to blame the luckless trooper and I knew well the officer code: “never complain; never explain!”. I was severely admonished and given extra orderly officer duties in punishment. At least I was not expected to pay for the damage! Jackie never showed me any ill-will afterwards; he just had to make me sweat. He was a streetwise man who had risen in WW2 combat from trooper up through the ranks and I much admired him. I believe he knew my secret but his attitude was “if you’re mad enough to want to be here, more fool you!”. Roy, incidentally, was destined for promotion to General eventually.

Much is made in today’s media about the chronic lack of or inferior equipment of our troops in Iraq. It was always thus throughout history! In the Crimea, a consignment of boots was despatched to the soldiers; fine if you only had a right foot that is! So it was in Korea, the troops originally sent in were issued only with tropical kit. But the geographical knowledge of desk wallahs in the War Office did not extend to the fact that after the very hot summers came sub-arctic winters there. As usual, the poor sods had to turn to the Yanks for help. Incredibly, the Yanks were “dry” whilst one of the few things the Brits had in abundance was booze. A lively bartering trade not surprisingly ensued. It was even rumoured that sufficient quantities could secure a jeep but this may have been just a “good story”! An unusual perk in Korea was to be issued with a weekly tin of 50 Woodbines and a bottle of rum.

One day we were motoring up a track nose to tail when a company of infantry approached in single file going the opposite way. I saw by the emerald green hackles on their berets that they were Royal Irish Fusiliers. Suddenly I recognised one platoon commander as John with whom I had opened the bowling in the school’s 1st Eleven. I quickly climbed down to swap notes very briefly because we had to keep moving. However, I saw him again for a proper chat when I had to take some Catholic troopers to the Irish camp for confession.

One practice introduced by the Yanks was rest and recuperation (R&R). Every man was sent to Tokyo for a week’s leave during his tour of duty. Luckily, we had adopted this system too. In time it was my turn to go and I flew courtesy of the US Air Force to Tokyo. Apart from the odd visit by ENSA group entertainers, there were no western women in our area. There were of course local girls but the poor things had been so traumatised by war and now lived in such  wretched conditions that it was impossible to think of them as sex objects. (Having said that, a couple of our troopers had managed mysteriously to catch the clap!). At the Officers Club in Tokyo I teamed up with Mark, a like-minded Canadian Sapper.  

I had lost my virginity as a sixteen year old schoolboy on a trip to Paris. In those days, “nice” girls did not do it! We were accommodated in one of the residences at the Cité universitaire and during the day were marched around the usual tourist attractions. However, during the evenings we were left largely alone. We had been briefed by so called highly experienced sophisticates at school that the action was to be found in the area around Les Halles, a combination of Covent Garden, Smithfield and Billingsgate markets all in one.

One evening, a friend and I (we hunted in pairs for safety!) were there persuaded by two ladies to join them in a nearby and very seedy “hotel”. In the room they first produced impressive Cartes certifying that they were free from any infection known to man, at least as far as our limited French allowed. We all then undressed and they washed our members in the hand basin. Then they knelt down and took us in their mouths. Nothing we had been told by even the grossest of the braggarts at school had prepared us for this! We were quickly finished and in moments were back in Rue St  Denis, 1000 (old) francs poorer but certainly wiser.
The Japanese girls were something else again. They were not the highly trained and sophisticated geishas made famous by Captain Pinkerton and Hollywood. They were their more amateurish sisters out for a good time but getting pocket money on the way. Their speciality was bathing you. Not the kind that Mum gave you as a child. They actually joined you in the tub and gave you a thorough going over which of course you reciprocated. This was a superior service to the rudimentary ablutions offered by the Parisiennes.

All too soon my leave was over though I had managed to see the usual tourist attractions as well as partying. I returned to the Regiment in serious need of rest and recuperation, out of the question of course. But it is amazing how quickly a punished body can recover when you are young and physically fit!

The Regiment’s tour came to an end and Christmas 1954 saw us embarking at Pusan for passage to Libya. This movement was an added bonus which I had not known about when I opted for the Fifth first of all! We disembarked at Tobruk, which still showed the battle scars of the WW2 siege  with sunken hulks in the harbour. Thence we were taken in convoy to our new base at Barce where there was a former Italian barracks built during the brief period when Libya was part of that country’s empire before the war. Libya was now an independent Kingdom. The Desert Rat veterans were quick to reminisce and “grip” us rookies about the previous time they had literally blazed this trail! Cyrenaica was pleasantly green rather than inhospitable desert, which was further south, and it had been called the granary of the Roman Empire when that was at its height..

The contrast to our previous home in Korea could not have been starker. The tank park was concrete instead of the mud we were used to and the tanks were spotless. The accommodation was in proper buildings with modern plumbing and electricity. There were playing fields with real grass! Life would be different here..

Bob with Arab friends at Jālū Oasis, Libya

I now shared a room with Colin who had arrived direct from Sandhurst. Instead of the rats, he had an excitable Boxer called Whisky who slept on his bed. Much more agreeable! The daily routine was much as in Korea but in far nicer conditions. The climate was Mediterranean, the kind people pay to holiday in nowadays. One new and very interesting exercise was in desert navigation when we drove south in jeeps deep into the Sahara as far as the oasis of Jalu. Long Range Desert Group style. The veterans taught us how to use the sun compass and also desert survival techniques.

As in Korea, we did not mix much with the locals apart from Libyan royalty and dignitaries who were invited to the mess on social occasions. The only time I visited the Arab township nearby was to pick up a drunken trooper when I was orderly officer. If you left a vehicle unattended you might return to find it minus wheels!

Life was more formal and smarter than in Korea. We wore mess dress in the evening. Another difference was the presence for the first time of “white” women. There were married quarters with wives and even children during school holidays. Curiously, to some of us  “Korean” bachelors this was not a fully welcome development! For relaxation we read a lot and played cards. In this latter there was an interesting social distinction. The more senior members played bridge. They would spend the evening quietly accumulating rubbers ending up either owing or winning a few bob. No sweat!. The younger ones opted for poker which was at once much more lively and rowdy. Stakes were higher and the unlucky or rash could wind up with a financial headache.

On formal mess nights after the loyal toast, we did not have the luxury of say a Highland regiment with their piper to serenade them round the table followed by Scottish reels and the like. We had to resort to more basic games. The usual drill was for senior members to sit back in comfort and watch the subalterns at play. There were several games such as Moriarty where two blindfold blokes would attempt to bash each other with rolled newspapers, Cardinal Puff, a drinking ritual where if you got it wrong would result in a serious alcohol overload and boat races but the most popular one was British Bulldog. All furnishings would be shoved aside and the youngsters would divide into two teams; the runners and the tacklers. The idea was for the runners to get unscathed from one end of the anteroom to the other and for the tacklers to stop them. The runners won if anyone got through the scrum to reach sanctuary. The tacklers won if they stopped all runners. It could be quite bruising, like rugby played on tarmac! Of course, the comfortable, baying spectators had all been subalterns themselves, having to go through the mill. They saw no reason to spare the current incumbents in their exertions. Occasionally during high jinks something special might occur. Once a horse was ridden through the mess to tally-hos. Another time shotguns were discharged into the ceiling. Yet again a piano was drowned in beer. Once, famously, Bill had a parade wearing a red Egyptian fez instead of the regulation black beret. He was temporarily under house arrest and we passed him clandestine drinks through his window. I don’t think the brass knew quite how to deal with that one!

Towards the end, Tim and I hired a dodgy jeep from an Arab trader to do an epic drive following the Desert Rats' route to Tunis in defeating the Afrika Corps. From the start the vehicle gave trouble but we finally made it via Benghazi, “Marble Arch”, Tripoli, Gabes, Sfax and Sousse meeting some weird characters on the way. The final prize was historic Carthage. Because of the jeep’s mulish reluctance, we were late back at base and were hauled up before the Colonel for going “AWOL”. This was potentially a serious charge but luckily we had somehow won some Brownie points for our venture with the Brigadier in Tripoli who had actually helped push-start us on our way back. This mollified the CO somewhat and we were admonished and given extra orderly officer duties in punishment. He knew anyway that we were “demob happy” being on our way out!

Shortly after in late summer 1955, Tim and I flew from Benghazi to Northolt for demobilisation, via a few agreeable days in Malta. We were released slightly early because we were both going up to Cambridge. I met my parents at the Mount Royal Hotel. My mother wept. My father just smiled. He had been at this scene before after WW1 and Arras. But the dear old things still could not figure out quite what had happened! The one-eyed volunteer had finally made it!

At Cambridge I met Mary, the love of my life. We married and had five children: Dominie, Siân , Gavin, Alice and Harry. All uniquely different! All absolutely wonderful!
But that is another story!