Archive for the ‘The Call Up’ Category

What Were You in, Then?

February 1, 2020

What Were You In, Then?
When you are a bit long in the tooth like ‘yours truly’ and you meet up with another guy who seems to be about your age and you strike up a conversation after the niceties, the weather etc. the question invariable seems to come around to the question: ‘Did you do National Service?’ If the answer is in the affirmative the next question is, ‘What were you in, then?’ Quite a few will answer RAF, a lesser number, The Royal Navy and the vast majority would answer: the Army, as the army conscripted far more than the other two put together, if the guy answered: the army the next question would be, ‘what Mob were you in?’ Most would have been in the many infantry regiments, the Guards or one of the corps. The next question would be, ‘Where did you get to?’
There were three million of us conscripted between 1947 and 1963, There were some nasty little skirmishes in Malaya, (kikuyu), Kenya (Mau-Mau) , Cyprus (EOKA) and all out wars in Korea and at Suez. Not to mention those who contracted radiation poisoning from the nuclear bomb tests at Christmas Island. Over three million of us were conscripted and over three hundred died.
But there were some great postings: Hong Kong, Singapore, Aden, for most of us it was a home posting or BAOR Germany and the ‘cold War’ which thankfully never got going in earnest. In the main we had a great time although we didn’t always realise it until we were out. This is how it all unfolded.
Call up
The first indication that Her Majesty was going to require your services was when a brown envelope dropped through your letter box containing a questionnaire to be completed regarding your personal details, trade and qualifications and requesting your preferred arm of the service. Having recently completed an engineering apprenticeship, I decided to apply for the army and the corps of REME. (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers). I had been pre-warned by mates who had already travelled this course that I would probably be drafted to something entirely different. Soon after followed a medical at a suburban school: the old naked line-up, breath in, breath out, cough, the whole issue. They said I was too fat so I would be grade two but that was it. I was in.
A few weeks later and another brown envelope popped through the letterbox, I was to report on Thursday the 18th of June 1959 to Number One Training Battalion REME at Craddock Barracks, Blandford Dorset. My initial reaction was that I was chuffed to have secured my first choice: the REME

. There were a couple of weeks to go before I was due at Blandford, so I had time to tender my notice at work and enjoy a period of winding down, totally unprepared for that which was to come.

Thursday was always national service intake day. British Rail carriages would carry a liberal sprinkling of apprehensive young men carrying brown paper parcels. We had been warned not to bring suitcases, as they were not easily returnable through the post. For many lads that Thursday morning train was to be the buffer between two entirely different ways of life. It was also to be one’s last chance for the luxury of abstract thought; soon one would be channelled into considerations of more importance: how to survive the next five minutes for instance. But for the moment the last few words from home were perhaps still the ones ringing in your ears: ‘It’ll make man of you son!’
Certainly, things wouldn’t be the same for a while for either the lad or the ones left behind. Homes would be a little quieter for the parting and for the lads; well…For one thing Christian names would be out. From now on your handle would probably represent your place of origin or your accent: Scouse, Jock, Taffy, Geordie, Yorky etc. And that was just what your friends called you; the NCOs (corporals and sergeants) would call you something much nastier than that.
A great positive about the army is: it’s difficult to be lonely. It was even difficult to be lonely on the way into the army. All those lads with the little brown paper parcels, in all those railway carriages, seemed to be conglomerating together to reach those terrible, southern garrison towns. Blandford Training Camp.
At Blandford Forum Station we spilled from the gate and beheld our first glimpse of things to come: a fully fledges lance corporal. He was dressed in that which we came to know as: ‘shirtsleeve order’. He was pulled in at the waist with a tight belt with just a little bulge above at the front and a little bulge below behind. At the top, a tiny beret was perched on the front of his head and at the bottom; he wore gatered trousers and very shiny boots. In army terms, this was known as being ‘bulled up’. The highlight of it all and by far his most important attribute was positioned on a band across his upper arm: one brilliantly white washed chevron. This for the time being put him on a par with God.
He didn’t bother to speak, a sharp flick of his head was enough to tell us that he wished us to climb into the back of this enormous truck he had with him. I couldn’t even get my foot high enough to reach the foot hole in the tailgate. A disgusted look was all I got from the corporal but luckily willing hands from the other lads ungraciously bundled me onto the floor of the truck amongst them. We were instantly mates – you were never short of mates in the army!
Blandford Camp: even today I still get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach at the sight of: white washed stones, polished fire hoses, huts with wooden verandas – their red fire buckets residing resplendently on hooks. Surprisingly, I experience the opposite sensation: excitement, at the sight of an army convoy on the move – where are they off to? I want to be part of it and relive the camaraderie of an exercise. The gate adjacent to the guardhouse will likely be blocked by a white horizontal pole, which will be sourly raised by the ‘red caps’ Military Police – (the monkeys) from time to time to admit the unfortunate. These: the infamous guardhouses, are designed to keep those in the camp who would rather be out and those out who might wish to get in – possibly to pinch guns and ammunition from the armoury. It seems that just before our intake, the IRA had made a raid on some army camp or other and pinched some ordnance. This gave ‘old sweats’ the opportunity to put the wind up we poor ‘sproggs’, who were possibly performing guard duties for the very first time. Returning to the gate, well oiled from a night on the town, they would break out into Irish accents and audible whisper things like: ‘Pass the bomb Paddy’ etc.
Once inside the camp, our first stop was the barbers. ‘Anything that shows below the band of a beret is mine,’ said the barber and proceeded to shear us. Generally, we were still being treated semi-humanely up to this point; they even gave us a cup of tea. Looking through the window whilst drinking that cup of tea, I saw a clockwork man – or that’s what it seemed to me. He was marching along all on his own; nobody else was in sight, yet his arms were swinging at ninety degrees to his body. He was almost cutting himself in half with the momentum of his swagger and really giving the gravel some stick with his boot heels. At the time, I thought that he must be some sort of prisoner.
Then it was time for them to lead us off to the huts, which we were to call home for the next (the longest) six weeks.
The huts were set in groups called ‘spiders’, this was because several billets of sleeping accommodation radiated off a central ablution facility like the legs of a spider. Each billet contained about thirty beds and on each bed was laid out a multitude of mysterious items: webbing, pouches, belts, tin hat, water bottle and an unrecognisable miscellany of bits and pieces. This turned out to be all the equipment a recruit would need to complete his basic training that was not dependent on the size of the individual. ‘Lights out at ten,’ we were warned, and more or less left in peace. As yet, although the surroundings were strange our captors seemed reasonably human. Beware the storm to come!

If we thought the world we had left for sleep on that first night was strange the world we were rudely awakened to next morning was totally alien. The method of waking us up, it seemed, was to throw a metal bucket bouncing and clanking down the centre of the room. While we sat up in our beds staring sleepily in disbelief at the bucket, the follow up arrived in the form of an enormous moustachioed corporal, who came clomping down the central aisle in huge boots, his green cape, dripping wet from the rain. He enforcing the point that he wanted us to get up by lifting the foot end of each of the beds into the air and then letting them crash down onto the floor. He accompanied this sadistic act with a rage contorted face, a dripping moustache and the words: ‘Git your feet on the floooor you ‘orrible gits!’ Outside on parade in five minutes.
We Were In!

Continued in a fortnight I’ll tell you how we went on