Memories of National Service Paul Croxson
I was approaching 18 and National Service loomed as it did for all of us males. Since I was studying for my entrance exams to the Library Association I asked for deferment in order to take them and it was granted – surprisingly easily. In the meantime I received my call-up papers and attended the medical, confident that I would fail since I still suffered the after effects of polio. At school ‘Excused Games’ was one of the more kindly meant nicknames; I had lousy eyesight (‘Four Eyes’) and not a muscle in sight – ideal material for a librarian in fact. So desperate were they for recruits that I passed grade IIIF. And yes, they did ask us to cough. At the following interview with an overweight and elderly officer (later, also to interview JF), I was asked what regiment I wanted to join.
‘The Intelligence Corps,’ was my reply.
‘Don’t be stupid/ridiculous, you can’t do that,’ was the scornful response.
‘Yes you can, sir,’ I said, ‘My friend BB (I Corps, field security in Austria) did it and said that I could too if I asked.’
Oh, the naiveté of the lad.
‘I’ll put you down for a clerk,’ said the officer and dismissed me.
The call to arms arrived: Report to No. 5 Training Battalion, Royal Army Service Corps, Blenheim Barracks, Farnborough on Thursday, I was to find that call-up was always on a Thursday, fortnightly., Imitation leather, brown-fibre attaché case in hand, I turned up as instructed at Farnborough North Station, walked out to the station forecourt and the screaming and shouting began. Were these lunatics real, dressed as soldiers, striding around in their immaculate uniforms like hyped-up sheepdogs? I had to master the art of getting into the back of a Bedford 3-tonner. Once at the barracks we rushed like ants around in a panic not daring to offend and call down the wrath of these devils incarnate. We collected our uniforms, BD’s, berets, drawers – jungle green, two pairs of boots, gym kit etc. We were petrified of dropping anything. Staggering down the lines we went with a mattress balanced precariously on our head whilst at the same time trying to control the pillowcases and bedding under our arms. Having survived seven years at a pseudo-public school I had been bullied by experts, but these boys were really good.
We were introduced to the weird arcane practice of folding the sheets and blankets to make a solid biscuit – an object that no one would relate to sleeping (what was it called – a bed-block?) The drill corporals demonstrated the technique and as we desperately tried to copy them they would dash our creations to the ground and we would start again – and again, and again. We also learned how to lay out in a precise pattern all of our worldly possessions all beautifully – well eventually – ‘squared off’, shirts, socks, shoe brushes; the whole bloody lot. All our civvy possessions had been confiscated earlier and sent home, all with the intention of making it difficult to abscond or ‘go AWOL’ as we soon learned it was called in military circles. All we owned was a block of blanco and tin of Brasso.
And then our army numbers – each of us was given a unique number which we were told would be ‘found engraved on our hearts’ when we died. The ‘last four’, as they were known, would be our short-form reference number for the rest of time, and had to be marked on all our possessions.
Mine were 5134.
The most bizarre act was having to produce one’s own identity tags (wonderfully useful when identifying the dead) which from that moment on would be worn at all times (including when dead), until demob when you had the pleasure of finally ripping them off. There were just a couple of sets of letter dies and a few hammers, and each disc had to be laboriously punched out, letter by letter. Of course you had to wait patiently for your turn to use the most common letters. We learned the advantage of short surnames and why everyone suddenly became C of E. You try stamping out Jehovah’s Witness on a little metal disc the size of an old penny.
We dressed in our uniforms for the very first time. They were shapeless (and so were we), heavy, hairy and incredibly uncomfortable. What a sight we were! Exhausted, we finally lay on our beds at about 3.30 am, desperate for a few moments of sleep before the satanic drill-corporal (Corporal C, I can still recall his name), ‘bandbox fresh’ woke us screaming like a dervish from the Mad Mahdi’s army. It was not long before we learned that it was better to lay our kit out on our beds the night before and sleep on the floor which we had already bulled to perfection with an extraordinary tool. It was called a bumper from distant memory.
This went on for two appalling weeks. We learned to press our uniforms with the one iron supplied (one smart-arse had brought his own) and wetted brown paper. We blancoed our webbing in a colour that had been thought necessary if hiding in the Indian Kush or the plains (this is not a joke) of South Africa, and to polish brasses until they almost made your eyes ache to look at them. But still nothing was good enough! ‘Your Brasses are filthy. Take this man’s name’, even though you (and the NCO and officer) knew the poor blighter had been up damned near all night polishing away. What was so incredible was that we also had to purchase all of these cleaning materials out of our own pockets and the miserable 25/- a week from the state.
We learned to bull our boots after we had hammered in the regulation 13 studs into each sole. (Why could the manufacturer not do this job properly?) This bulling required that all of those pimples that had been expensively impressed into the leather had to be removed. A technique had been designed over the years by which Kiwi or Cherry Blossom boot polish was ladled all over the bits that had to shine, toe caps and heels, and was then set fire to. It was then burnished with the back of the spoon (the same one as was used to eat the disgusting food). Finally, using a yellow duster and spit polishing in small circles it was worked up to a mirror like gloss. None met the approval of the drill staff first time round who threw them around the room destroying all the painstaking work. This went on for seeming hours so it must have given them enormous pleasure. We were permanently exhausted. They treated us with total contempt seemingly unaware of the contempt and loathing that we felt for them. They appeared to forget that ours was the real world and that we would one day go back to it. The system was sick.
The food was awful. They could even ruin mince. We were warned by the old soldiers around us not to drink the tea. ‘It’s full of bromide’ we were told and you won’t be able to get it up. In those days virginity was not reserved for the under twelve’s and most of us, though we would never admit it, still had to experience what the tea would supposedly destroy. We were soon drinking 2- or 3-pint mugs of it.
We learned how to salute officers but NOT corporals and sergeants, even though they seemed far more important; how to advance and retire in threes; to quick and slow march and to do funny things with rifles that had absolutely no connection with their ability to kill. We were becoming Trained Soldiers, honed to become killing machines – well, clerks or drivers, more likely. We marched to and from the dining hall clutching our ‘irons’ and our pint pots in our left hands behind our backs. What came as a shock was that, although the bulk of us were just 18, so many of my ‘oppos’ (another new word) were married and had children – some more than one. I had still to have my first real girlfriend and was very much a virgin; hard to believe in this day and age of sexual freedom. I was far from unique!
It was a welcome release to undergo some sort of psychometric examination, answering some fifty questions in ‘X’ minutes. At last I was in a familiar element and I could watch those b******s who had scorned me for being so physically incompetent suffer. Long live the swot. At last he has his day! The bulk of the questions were unbelievably simple: ‘what comes next? 1.2.3.? and so on. Some of my new oppos struggled, much to my pleasure. Anyway, I answered them all and still had time to go back and check my answers thoroughly. After all, we had been told that our answers would decide our futures for the next two years. Staggering out, in answer to the question ‘how many did you get done’ I happily replied ‘the whole f*****g lot’. By this time we had learned that it was a requirement of army life to interpose the dreaded F word before every … well everywhere you could and then double it.
After two weeks we were allowed out of camp to see the real world. If Farnborough and Aldershot were the real world, we saw it if only for a couple of hours. Out through the guardroom we went in our best uniforms, by now tailored and gleaming. We had been told that we had to march in, halt and give our number etc. I marched in immaculately, and halted; well not exactly by the rulebook as my feet went from under me and I was flat on my back. The guardroom floor had been bulIed to a glass finish, as had been everything. Laughing, the regimental police threw me out into freedom. I cannot remember what we did that night but we anxiously kept an eye on the clock:2359 hrs, Cinderella-like. One chap didn’t make it back on time, claiming he ‘had got lost’ and was immediately back-squadded, a fate only slightly better than death.
On our first weekend home on leave we furiously cut plywood to keep our ammunition pouches and backpacks square, we sanded our cap badges almost smooth with the finest of emery paper, trying to avoid the slightest scratch and we hammered our belt brasses flat. We wanted to look like real ‘old soldiers’!
Against all odds, with two exceptions – the Farnborough runner and a Glaswegian who had ‘worked his ticket’ by constantly wetting his bed – we made it through basic training and lined up in our billet to learn our fates. Two were to be drill instructors having had a head start by being in the Army Cadet Force. Most were destined for Willems Barracks to be trained to become clerks, others storemen or drivers. One was sent to a special unit supposedly suffering from malnutrition despite surviving the rigours of basic training. There were just two of us left, unwanted and seemingly unloved – Bob Matthias and myself. Corporal C claimed to have no idea of our fates and told us to ‘keep our heads down and out of sight, but keep an eye on daily orders.’ Was it Part 1 or Part 2 we had to watch? Corporal C, over the following days, showed signs of being human, especially if offered a cigarette or two. Several days later our names appeared. We were summoned to the orderly office where we received our orders to collect a packed meal and to collect our travel warrants and make our way to Haywards Heath the following day. We had no idea what fate awaited us. (Who recalls singing ‘Do not forsake me Oh my Darling’?) The next day we were off to Farnborough North, then Waterloo and Victoria (we were dressed in what was known as FSMO, full service marching order and carrying our bulging kitbags, not ideal for the London underground in rush hour), and our doorstep sandwiches. Finally, we arrived at Haywards Heath in Sussex, north of Brighton.
Two soldiers and a 20 cwt were waiting in the forecourt and we were ordered to get in and then we saw clearly their flashes for the first time. Very dark green with black letters – until quite close it was impossible to see the magic words Intelligence Corps. We had made it into the Intelligence Corps and were at Maresfield, then home of the l Corps’ depot. It was on the edge of a wood, which later we were to find weirdly contained a number of Russian artillery pieces.
We learned our way around. ‘That lot at the bottom’ were linguists (oh how I envied them). Those with the white epaulettes were officer cadets. Several of them would disappear nearly every night for the fleshpots of Brighton in an ancient, hardly altered Daimler or Rolls Royce hearse. God they had style! If you peeped through that window – it was the museum – you could see the Russian uniforms and rifles. This was more like it! Our accommodation was very basic, cement-block rooms each with a cast-iron stove in the centre, eight, I think, to a room. Alan Bennett, later, was to describe it as ‘the foulest camp he had ever been in’. We met our fellow soldiers. For the first time we were to come face to face with a regular – until then a mythical bird. He had offered to serve for a minimum of three years. Some would have voluntarily signed on for 22 years without the option to leave. Escape for them would only come through buying themselves out.
We were a right mixture. Paul, much older than the rest of us had signed up for 22 years without the option. N, a three-year man, had been a cub reporter with the Chorley Citizen (or was it the News?). No conversation with him could start without the gripping words ‘when I was with the Chorley Citizen’. It became a joke line adopted by us all with what we thought was a Lancashire accent based on what we had heard on the BBC Light Programme. There was DR straight from university, a linguist who lived in Bromley and two from Manchester-ish, also from university, one with an MSc in chemistry. He would cause total chaos with his inability to co-ordinate his arms and legs when marching. Even in the back row he would wreck every movement. Right or left wheeling his arms and legs were always in the wrong place. Most extraordinary of all, there was DH, formerly a prefect from my school! Many a time he had given me 50 lines. The last time I had seen him he was standing god-like on the school platform when I was a mere third former. Now we were equals except that he was a qualified chartered accountant and 24 years old.
We filled in questionnaires, one on our language ability. Originally I had claimed ‘very good’ French and ‘good’ Spanish, but in the company of these graduates I mentally cringed at my daring. God knows how I missed ever being tested. Our training, which lasted between three and four months, was quite interesting starting with what was called Corps Training. We learned all about Orders of Battle, the lifeblood of military intelligence. The training staff was so different from those in the RASC. Sergeant M, our Corps course instructor, was to invariably address us as ‘gentlemen’. He had been one of the first to enter Belsen and blamed his lack of hair on that. Looking at the photograph of the depot staff now, it is surprising just how many had served in the war and had the medals to prove it! We learned to drill and actually got to fire both rifles and sten guns having been told that we would never need to use them, our weapon was to be a revolver. We learned about 4 X 2s and pull-throughs and boiling our rifles.
Passing the course, having been constantly in fear of that punishment beloved by the army, back- squadding, we were finally able to wear our I Corps badge and flashes. No longer was I potential clerk material in the RASC. We moved on to field security training and, during this time, we were the recipients of much strange data, such as how many mobile bath houses there were in a Red Army Motorised Rifle division (not many); the difference in a Russian Army as compared with the British Army. I think we knew more about the Russian Army than the British. We each had to give a lecture to the whole course on a subject of our own choice -– my first public speaking engagement, and I spoke appallingly on trades unions. But the most stimulating part of our training was undoubtedly the interrogator’s course, which also involved men from the dreaded SAS, although we didn’t realise it at the time. We were simply told they were sergeants from a Territorial Army/Reservist section coming back for annual training, which was partly true.
For 24 hours a small group of us would play the part of captured terrorists and be questioned one by one by these thugs. There were few restraints apart from the fact that we all knew that after the 24 hours roles would be reversed, with us having the advantage of various little tips we might have picked up. They were quite kind to us! As part of the questioning however one chap was made to stand naked next to a very hot coal stove. After a while, getting bored with this, they decided to put him outside on the veranda to cool off. This was in the early hours of an October morning. As they bundled him outside he realised that moving from a brightly lit room into almost total darkness meant that for a few seconds they would effectively be blind and, knowing they couldn’t shoot him, he promptly ran away.
The umpire, who was present throughout to make sure no one was actually killed, decided that he had escaped but, being without clothing or shelter, would have died quickly from exposure. He was relegated to playing a corpse, which was much more restful than being mistreated by lunatics. Now, when fictional interrogations are shown on television, I’m amused to see how often the basic rules that we were taught are broken. The protagonists frequently facing each other across narrow and flimsy tables. We were told repeatedly to use a table too wide to reach across and too heavy to overturn.
I heard a good story a few months later. On this occasion the SAS sergeants were to be interrogated first, and the Intelligence Corps trainees went into town (Haywards Heath presumably), lifted them and took them back to the camp. There they did all the usual things, probably half drowning the poor sods in water-filled oil drums, stripped to underpants on all fours, hands and feet in fire buckets full of icy water etc. but as my informant said, ‘These guys were good and we couldn’t crack their cover,’. After about an hour of this a phone call came through, ‘This is Sergeant J of 21 SAS, where the fuck have you guys been? We’re still waiting to be snatched.’ The trainees had kidnapped a bunch of complete strangers who obviously couldn’t break cover because they didn’t have a secret identity to reveal. Of course this didn’t go down too well with the press and public, especially as not too long before, during a NATO exercise in the highlands, Intelligence Corps interrogators had mistreated a group of Belgian pilots by hanging them in chains in a deserted barn. A similar farce happened to me personally when doing that delicate manoeuvre known as section attacks in Ashdown Forest. Having crawled hidden and camouflaged, suddenly we sprung to our feet screaming and firing blanks and hurled ourselves at this hilltop only to find three ladies picnicking. They were shaken and very unamused. I think that there was another apology written to cover this.
By the end of October 1954 our training was complete, and we were ready to be posted, qualified in all aspects of field security; masters of the art of interrogation. We were given our postings. Most were to go to Germany and Cyprus, others to exotic places like Vienna and Trieste. These lucky blighters would also become sergeants the moment they reached their new postings. Quite a few of us (perhaps a quarter), however, were told that we had been selected for training in MI8. Even more training and a Spy! Hurrah! No one would tell us what MI8 was. ‘Sorry,’ we were told, ‘it’s secret’.
We were filled with a mixture of fear and excitement.
We were shipped to Reservoir Barracks, then the home of the Gloucester Regiment. After Maresfield the billets were verging on luxury. Life was getting better and better. We were treated as being a bit special by the Glosters who had been told that we were on a gas-training course. Many of them had recently returned from Korea, disillusioned and very bloody minded. We learned about frequencies and wavelengths, skip distances. Low-, high- and very-high- frequency (VHF) became our very bread and butter. We moved on to the principles of cryptography and cipher breaking. Most days started with doing the Daily Telegraph crossword to ‘wake up our minds’. It was great fun and the elderly portly WOII who was our only teacher was marvellous. Life was pretty good. We finally started to learn about call signs and radio networks. We now knew that MI8 was all about signals intelligence or Sigint as we came to know it. We had finally been introduced to the science of Traffic Analysis. We were free every evening to go into Gloucester or to the NAAFI for a drink. Every morning started with doing the Telegraph crossword. This was supposedly preparation for the cryptography part of the course: Vigenere’s cipher, Playfair, said to have been developed by Babbage. We learned simple mono-alphabetic substitution ciphers, homophones. Frequency analysis, the number of times letters occurred in a standard piece of text, was child’s play. e.t.a. and so on. (Well at least it is in English!) We were learning the secrets of traffic analysis.
Since under international law governments did not spy on other governments, what we were being trained to do was illegal. The slightest hint of what we did and death stared us in the face! Not a word was said about Enigma. Winterbottom had still to blow the gaff. His book The Ultra Secret was not to be published until the summer of 1974, and then finally Bletchley Park and its staff could reveal its secrets.
Our last exercise before we were let loose on the Red Army was to reconstruct the Italian Army order of battle at the time of the invasion of the foot of Italy, from radio intercepts. We were ready to hit the road.
Back to ‘bloody Maresfield’ we went. It was not only miserable and uncomfortable but by then damned cold. We went out stealing coke. For the record may I point out that the stuff we pinched was processed coal and not cocaine? The one good thing about MI8 was that there were very few postings; Germany, Austria, Cyprus, the War Office and other government departments. Since Cyprus was the one place I didn’t want to go, guess where my fate lay. Cyprus it was to be! Suddenly to my joy, I was smitten with blepharitis, a small price to pay to avoid Cyprus, and ended up in
Tidworth Military Hospital with just my small pack. I was there long enough to avoid Cyprus, parading around in white shirt and red tie under my BD, very much the wounded soldier.
Back to bloody Maresfield again in time to join in with the next course who were already there for posting. This time I got GCHQ and that suited me. Off I went with GH to another ‘black hole’. We had no idea what went on inside GCHQ or even what those four letters meant. Geoff was to become a great mate and for several months we shared a room in Montpelier Spa Hotel which, despite its grand name, was only a Civil Service hostel. We were paid £7 which covered our food and lodging there. We all nearly starved, so bad was the food! Geoff had been a high-flying Cambridge mathematician and had been nurtured throughout his National Service in preparation for GCHQ. He hated it. He wanted to be a real soldier before undertaking the excitement of a career as an actuary. There we were, a Cambridge First and me with my five O levels and the entrance exam of the Library Association in one of the most secret places in the UK.
So much for my expectations of becoming an ace cryptographer or of nights tracing the movements of the Russians; I was posted to the GCHQ orderly room! The recruiting officer had finally won. I was a clerk but with the highest trade rating that could be achieved and after six months of intensive training. I did learn about imprest systems since I did the payroll working out how many pound notes (not many) shillings and sixpences and pence we would need. There was, though, an enormous perk. Not only were we responsible for GCHQ we also looked after, administratively, four chaps who worked at the Post Office research establishment at Dollis Hill and others who were at the War Office and a couple serving in MI1 in Metropole House just off Trafalgar Square. Dennis Potter, writer of the Singing Detective, was to bring them to life in his play Lipstick on my Collar, having served in the I Corps there himself. I learned to find my way through the maze of tunnels under Whitehall. Every weekend I had a pass back to London. During the week I worked in civilian clothes whist living in a Civil Service hostel surrounded by young lady clerks, with a bit of lust some were quite attractive. Geoff found his first girlfriend who was to become his first wife, at the hostel. I didn’t think life could ever get better.
‘Croxson,’ said Major B, the CO and by then quite a friend, as we shared an office, ‘they want you back at Maresfield.’ ‘When?’ I asked. ‘Monday,’. Back I went, packed up my ever-diminishing pile of bits and pieces and staggered back to sunny Sussex. This time I was shoved unceremoniously into the ‘linguists’ wing’ where, in earlier days, I had longed to go. A hut to myself! Life was on the up again. Soon I would be on a Russian course. Bodmin, perhaps Cambridge, here I come! But this was the army. ’Croxson, you are i/c Bathhouse,’ I was told when I reported to the orderly room. They had called me back from GCHQ, Cheltenham just for that? Unbelievable! But true! I had to clean the toilets (as did Alan Bennett), baths, showers and the floor twice a day. When this was finished I had to draw from the stores ‘Scythes, grass-cutting, for the use of, 1) together with a whetstone, and cut the surrounding grass. How the mighty are fallen. In all honesty there wasn’t a job for me. Why on earth had they moved me?
“How about helping Jimmy Edwards (then a famous comedian) on his farm? The I Corps was, it appeared, a pool of cheap labour readily available to him. When I found out it was lifting potatoes I remembered about volunteering and declined gracefully. His farm was at Piltdown just down the road and then, the Piltdown Man was still believed in.
We had a GOC inspection and didn’t my toilets shine, despite the lack of proper cleaning materials. ‘Hide yourself away somewhere until it’s all over,’ I was told. ‘It’s a pleasure!’ I muttered under my voice.
Out of the blue came a posting to No. 1 Wireless Regt Germany. Again, I was off. Again I packed my ever-diminishing pile of uniform – as usual, my laundry had not been returned – and headed for Liverpool Street and Harwich. There were then two troop ships ploughing across the North Sea and when it was announced that we were on the Empire Parkestone there were groans from all of the old soldiers who knew her and her vices only too well. Others, to show their worldliness, claimed that she was a ‘fookin sight better than the Wansbeck’, which ploughed away, night after night, in the opposite direction.
We arrived at the Hook of Holland, for most of us our first time abroad and boarded the Blue Train, run solely for the armed forces which would take us into Germany. Holland was boring even in those days and then … we were in the dreaded Germany, full of Germans who had been our enemies for so much of our lives. The women seemed to wear funny hats and the station staff looked like the SS with their high-peaked helmets. We saw our first policeman wearing a coal scuttle! Was it my imagination or was there a shortage of men?
As a South Londoner I thought that I knew a bit about bombing but, this was something on a scale I could not believe. By 1955 the rubble had been cleared but there were still vast open spaces. We saw Cologne (which we had to learn was Köln). Couldn’t the bloody Germans spell? Then somehow we were in Münster.
Two things stand out in the brief time I was there. Firstly I was set to work in this large room and daily was given a pile of log sheets. No one explained what I should do with them – anyway as they were Polish or Hungarian Police networks I wasn’t adding much to the defence of the realm. As a result, I have no doubts I was considered useless and therefore suitable material for the Langeleben Penal Battalion as it was unkindly known.
Secondly, apart from a brief stopover in Maresfield I had been away from military life for six months! In that time I had worn uniform for no more than two weeks and then just denims. Then came the shock of a guard duty! Quite a lot of kit was borrowed but I must still have looked an absolute heap, even by I Corps standards. Certainly there was no chance of my being ‘stickman’. To be honest, standing outside the gate that night and wandering aimlessly around, I was scared; even more so when a drunk came up and started haranguing me. Despite being armed to the teeth with my ammunition-less Lee Enfield 303, I called out the guard. In no time the German police were there and a few well-aimed blows and profuse apologies resolved the problem.
One of the chaps who came over with me had a degree in German and so we soon found our way around Münster. The windows were brimful of goods in painful comparison with post-war Britain. Rationing there had finally ended only the year before! For some extraordinary reason which I still have not fathomed only Nescafé was scarce. We all bought a brass model of the cathedral for mum and a stein for dad. The barracks were superb and we were introduced to treble-glazing when double did not exist in England. Rumour had it that they were built for the SS. The shadow of an eagle which had been ripped from the wall could still be seen.
Very shortly after I arrived the whole regiment then moved to Munchen Gladbach (Mönchengladbach) as we called it in those days. (I recall nothing of the preparations for it and, when it happened, it was a complete shock.) All we knew about M-G was that we were near Holland and that the Germans spoke a very funny version of German called Plattdeutsch. Anything would have fooled me at that stage.
Suddenly I was on the move again; I had hardly unpacked. I was posted to Langeleben with no notice, as usual. Horror stories of the place were legion. I think that there were just two of us on the journey and we metaphorically huddled together for comfort. From one RTO (regimental transport officer – was that what they were called?) to the next we were passed until, by some miracle, we were at Königslutter and the welcome sight of a British Army 3-tonner. The driver had brought along Scouse the cook for company. We had met before! He greeted me like a long-lost friend – God help me, and I then knew that life was going to be bad. He could not cook anything safely other than jam butty fritters, which I adored. Supper was waiting for us and, although the main course escapes me the sweet was definitely rice pudding. Before dying from food poisoning I congratulated Scouse on having gone a bit haute cuisine with the nutmeg on the pudding. He looked puzzled. Suddenly, understanding lit up his almost toothless face. ‘That wasn’t fookin’ nutmeg, it was fookin’ rust from the fookin’ roof! He staggered off, giggling to himself. There we were in this corrugated tin shack with no front door and that was the cookhouse; whilst on night shifts we would break in to the larder and make ourselves enormous bacon sandwiches and tea in buckets for the next watch.
Nearly every night it seemed, a corporal staggered in with a brown enamel bowl in his hands which he filled with hot water and then proceeded to wash his crown jewels with great care whilst at the same time regaling us with his sexual exploits. I was still a virgin and could only wonder. Later, like all the rest, I would sign my name in the book at the PAC shed and draw my ration of contraceptives. By doing this, should I catch venereal disease despite watching the horror film shown to all recruits, I would not be court martialled. Sadly, I never used them ‘in battle’.
After my first supper I was taken to my billet down this row of perilous duckboards. It was a bloody tent. No one had warned me! Staggering down the duckboards, kitbag on my shoulder in almost total darkness I was amazed to hear a woman’s voice coming from a tent and it wasn’t on the radio. As a lance corporal, it seemed that I warranted a half-share in a tent. I shared with a corporal in the Royal Signals who had just returned from leave. He was later to be arrested and accused of rape which surely he had NEVER committed. The local German community intervened to have him freed; the girl was notorious for making false accusations. For the first few days I went round in a total daze. How would I survive?
Having been introduced to the toilets, there was no way I could use them! Another corrugated iron shack, with just planks with holes for a seat and below you the stinking mess that stayed until the honey wagon came along. The only privacy available was a tattered bit of sacking which just reached to your knees. Mind you, it wasn’t long before I, like the rest, could cope with the stench, and in many ways it was a social meeting place for us. When the honey wagon came to drain them, everyone steered clear, it was seriously unpleasant.
We worked in three wagons perched end to end. I learned of the Langeleben watch system which was considered infinitely superior to that at the regiment. And it was. We did have to work one all- night shift (midnight till 8) which was hard work. Instead of measly Polish police radio traffic, suddenly it was the real thing: Russians at last. Like every new boy I fell for the same trick. Suddenly, at about 4 a.m. one night there was heavy gunfire – ‘Oh God, the Russians are coming.’ It was only a tank gunnery range just over the border which kept the Voice Ops of the I Corps busy; I was to play the same trick on newcomers myself later.
Not long before my arrival the Russians had changed call signs, at the same time changing all the frequencies. Suddenly no one, including B Watch, knew who was who or where they were. Our major pre-occupation was call sign recovery and thanks to some clever recognition from the Op Specs and DF we were slowly rebuilding the networks. Was this the precursor to the invasion that we were all trained to expect? Fortunately it wasn’t, since in the case of an anticipated attack, the drivers, cooks and storemen were to draw rifles and ammunition from the stores, proceed up the road and hold back the invading Russian hordes of the 3rd Shock Army. Could we really have relied on Scouse and drunken Robbo, the killer driver?
Langeleben life in the early 50s was at best primitive. No showers or baths existed. One washed, shaved and cleaned teeth in the same brown enamel bowl, filled up in the cookhouse and then taken back to the tent. Blessed were the very few who had electric razors. We lived in our shapeless denims. I could have said ‘and slept’ since in winter that was exactly what we did with our pyjamas on underneath our denims. Our lowest temperature was minus 28°. We were issued with so-called army arctic clothing: a woollen hat, heavy woollen sweater, a leather sleeveless jacket probably a relic of the second world war and … if you were very lucky, Canadian Army lumberjack boots. These were handed down from foot to foot and were really cherished. The bowls of water were, by the time you had skidded and slipped down the duckboards, full of cold water, at least what you had not spilled. But we were happy! After all, we were the ‘Hardmen of Langeleben’ and the army loves its hardmen!
If we needed it, we could go on the weekly run to the Helmstedt Military Police Station at the border for a bath or even into Königslutter. I used Helmstedt as it gave an opportunity to visit a NAAFI. It was there that I committed what was at the time a serious security breach. I Corps chaps took off their shoulder flashes and cap badges whilst serving at Langeleben, possibly to avoid the risk of being kidnapped, the border a mere six miles away. I bumped into an old colleague in the MPs who said ‘I thought you were in the I Corps.’ Whilst I was fumbling for a reply, he suddenly turned very regimental and I felt forced to tell him that I was still I Corps but in disguise. In no time it was around the MPs: ‘There are I Corps in Langeleben, under cover’. The MPs were of course, used to I Corps but those in field security, which they reasonably presumed I was. Nothing happened but I was scared stiff at the time.
It was not until the late 50s that we had much in the way of entertainment other than the gramophone. (I think it was before record players). I think that there were perhaps half a dozen records all modern jazz and to hear Jerry Mulligan playing ‘Knights of the Turntable’ still brings back memories. I bought a copy only last year. The MJQ I loved. Dave Brubeck was a class act. What was it, ‘Jazz goes to College’? The early Elvis Presley’s were played to near death at the Deutsches Haus in Königslutter. (I promise you I didn’t know who he was). Langeleben had just the one hostelry which doubled up as the sergeants’ and officers’ messes, Frau Grahn’s. It was nearby, and the food was good and cheap. I’ve just remembered again, Pete Ellis trying to learn the trumpet!
Cigarettes, our lifeline, were disposed of for essential German marks by standing nonchalantly at the bar in Schumann’s with a bulging pocket. In no time at all some German would sidle up and whisper ‘Sie haben Zigaretten zu verkaufen?’ A quick nod, and a joint (not as we nowadays understand the word) survey to see if all was clear and then money and tobacco changed hands, the parties to the transaction separated quietly and quickly. Money was needed for food and beer. Camp food, both cookhouse-supplied and that purchased from the Church of Scotland wagon to supplement and vary the diet, still left hungry young men in need of good old fried potatoes, eggs and bacon, washed down with glasses of beer or Steinhager (a gin-like potent liquid) – when flush, even a steak. For this we would go into the nearby Gasthaus and order ‘Zwei Spiegeleier und gebraten mit ein bißchen Speck, bitte’, the German for fried eggs being mirror eggs. We wolfed down this lovely food, with that strange black bread and really enjoyed it. Those dear ‘old’ ladies who ran the Church of Scotland wagon which made regular visits were wonderful, the only British non-military we ever saw. An illicit visit by SOXMIS, the Soviet Military Mission, hardly counted.
One had to be careful, though, in possessing the foreign notes and coinage. Technically it was an offence but if proper application was made and one took part of pay in marks and had this entered in the paybook it covered all future illicit gains. The loss of my paybook part 2 and the following reprimand I received has no place here!
In October 1955 we moved to huts and we missed our tents. We had a bath, just one for over 60 of us. Our health suffered and suddenly we were reporting sick and catching colds. It was the end of an era. When the first of the huts was built, it housed the cookhouse and a snooker table and a dartboard. One I Corps chap took more than a few bob off the ‘’signals’ who on the whole did not expect I Corps to do anything so useful or clever as playing snooker. How wrong they were! He had played to almost semi-pro financing his way through university. As a geologist, he went on I believe to work for Shell. Robbo the driver who had spent time in Bielefeld played darts with viciously pointed 6” nails – deadly accurate. Unfortunately, they made exceedingly large holes in the board and were banned.
On 5t May 1955, a long-awaited event occurred. Germany regained its independence and became a sovereign power and would join NATO. Until then British troops had been the occupying power and we were considered as being on active service. The Germans were very conscious of this despite the low profile. When the day came all British troops were confined to barracks for several days and I well recall the young Germans hanging on the fence shouting and being very threatening. It also led to the only trouble that we ever had in my time when EC and someone else were badly beaten up on the way back to camp. Quite something as Ernie was a wrestling possible for the 1956 Olympic Games.
In an effort to restore good relations between the British and the Germans we decided to build a sledge and to give out little presents to the children. Fortunately we had JD, a graduate of Hornsey School of Art. He always carried his toolbox wherever he went and laboriously we converted the Jeep into a sledge and built a reindeer. It was a great success and certainly did no harm to our standing in the town as we drove round in it with Lieutenant J dressed as Father Christmas driving.
It would be easy to get the impression that life at Langeleben consisted of work, drink and sleep in varying proportions. I cannot for the life of me remember any sort of library but others do – perhaps something came along later. As an inveterate reader, I cannot imagine life totally without books. We certainly had no TV, but there was access to BFN (British Forces Network) radio. There was the odd outing to Braunschweig garrison to see an English language film and I did venture once to a German cinema and was amazed at the sex that was freely shown. Second Lieutenant RB tried his best and started German lessons but with the Watch system continuity was impossible. I signed up at the army’s expense for a correspondence course for the Foreign Office with the idea of getting back to GCHQ, but that fell by the wayside. Someone (probably B) organised a trip to the Braunschweig Opera House which seemingly had escaped the bombing, and we saw Rigoletto. Our seats were those with what is known as ‘restricted view’ and only by leaning across the next two seats was I able to see anything. From then until only recently opera has been a no-no in my life.
Stuart Brisley was an arts graduate from Guildford School of Art. A corporal (not bad for a National Serviceman), he was posted to Langeleben as the storeman and was to become a good friend, very useful when keeping up my stock of cigarettes. Upon demob I kept very much in touch with him whilst he was a postgraduate at the Royal College of Art. I remember him getting his first commission to paint a Wimpy hamburger, which he did, being Stuart, only too realistically. Not surprisingly it was never used despite submitting several versions as the ‘damned thing’ got staler and staler. But we drifted apart.
Nowadays, he is regarded as the godfather of British performance art, obtaining notoriety during the 60s and 70s. As Wikipedia says ‘his work dealt with challenging the human body in a physical, psychological manner, and often used faeces as the subject or a material in the construction of his work’. He has been a prolific writer, painter, performer, educator and contributor to the British Arts scene and was involved in setting up the UK Museum of Ordure. I haven’t yet dared to look at the website, let alone visit it. He was appointed Professor of Media Fine Art Graduate Studies at the Slade School of Art. London University and is unique in that he was/is the only staff member to be appointed by the students alone. Five of his works are exhibited in Tate Modern which gives an idea of his standing in the art world. He studied in Munich and he was, during the avant garde period, big, as they say, In Germany. I learned a lot from him, not least, about ‘Cranach the painter’. He dragged me along to the Braunschweig Art Gallery to see his works, one of the biggest collections in the world.
Sadly we went our own ways. I last saw him when he exhibited at the ICA Gallery in The Mall. He looked exactly the same. I went up to him, said hello but he did not even recognise me and claimed even not to remember me or his time at Langeleben. His exhibition consisted of the contents of a dustbin which he had assiduously collected and sorted out. It was laid out on long tables. Apart from the smell which was pretty unpleasant I remember the ordinariness of it all. Hundreds of used teabags in very neat rows still come to mind …
From my photos and a chat with NC we also walked quite a bit. Callow youths that we were, the beauty that surrounded us was never appreciated. After all, unless one went to Frau Grahn’s or the pub to the left it was Königslutter or drought – no Naafi or bar in those days! We had an outing to the VW factory at Wolfsburg which opened our eyes. I had been to Ford Dagenham and others were from the Midlands and had fathers who worked in car factories. We had seen nothing like it. The fact that we were told that post-war recovery of the factory was due entirely to a British soldier (Major H) did not give any comfort nor did the fact that British car manufacturers, when offered the factory under War Reparations had turned it down as unworkable and the car unsaleable!
We worked hard and, I think, very well, often succeeding in making breakthroughs before either the Regt or NSA-controlled US units. We had scares when we thought, ‘This is IT.’ I recall rushing up to the Elbe with Captain W when the Russians started moving. I saw my first Russian soldiers on the far bank. They closed the Autobahn another time and we worked without a break for several shifts. Not a prelude to invasion, thank goodness!
Leaving Langeleben with a great deal of sadness – hard to believe that 720 days had passed – I set off back to Birgelen still drunk from a stupendous demob party. Even by my low standards I looked an absolute mess. I had removed my Signals flashes but had lost my I Corps flashes and cap badge. My final interview was with an officer, totally bored with his task. Looking at my record, ‘I suppose there is no point in asking you if you want to stay in, is there?’ If he had said please I might have done so; I actually loved the work. He wrote up my Good Conduct report, I recall ‘conscientious’ and ‘studious’. He had never seen me before and had written ‘Signalman’ instead of ‘L/Cpl’ and put me in the Royal Signals. I crossed them out! There’s a limit to what I will take from the army!