I said I would put together some notes on my experiences with the KORBR particularly in the Cameroons in 1960/61 as a National Serviceman and my involvement as part of the Advance Party. Firstly I think your assessment of the character and ethos of the people there during that period was spot on! Very many were deferred student/craft apprentices born in the late 30s/early 40s who through their upbringing had already acquired a good degree of self-discipline before the Army added its own brand! Your description of The KORBR, the country and its people is excellent and could not be bettered.
I was called up in Oct 1959, shortly after my 21st birthday and did my basic training at Fulwood Barracks, Preston joining the Battalion at Humbleton Camp, Barnard Castle in early Jan 1960. A very cold winter, I recall, with a fuel shortage and bedside lockers being in great demand for firewood. All to be paid for of course by the time honoured method of deductions for “barrack room damages”!
I joined the Signal Platoon under Capt Blinkoe with CSM Medway and Sgt Holt and underwent a intensive training programme of several weeks with a training platoon of about 15. When it was confirmed that we were all going on active service to the Cameroons, a number of us were allocated to go on the Advance Party which meant that we went several weeks before the main body and flew out from Heathrow in a Britannia Turbo Prop, my first flight, direct to Lagos. Because of the war in the Belgian Congo at the time it was considered prudent to conceal our presence as much as possible hence the trucks conveying us to the harbour were driven fast and furiously with the covers down! My impression was of clouds of dust with chickens and cattle as well as local people running in all directions!
The rust bucket that took us from Lagos to Victoria, sailing east into the African Bight, was uncomfortable and so hot that we slept on deck but the voyage was stunning in many ways, we saw our first whales, flying fish with dolphins accompanying us all the way. We were out of sight of land for a few days then passed the island of Fernando Po and entered Victoria harbour, our boat being shallow draught so we could moor at the wharf. The next week or so was very hard, we never stopped working,unloading our gear then guarding it at night, all in continuous rain, and then being called on to use our newly taught skills to establish a telephone system between the harbour and elsewhere in Victoria.
After the unloading the next phase was with the Nigerian Army units to transport everything up Mt Cameroon to Buea the base camp which was a sea of mud, duck boards and bell tents. The roads were dreadful, no surface finish, just laterite and mud. Up and down we went time and time again on what was quite a hazardous journey. We rode “shotgun”,our “shotgun “being a brand new hickory pickaxe handle of the type we frequently used for guard duty at Barnard Castle. Our rifles had gone back into the Armoury, the weather conditions made it impossible to keep them clean. During our training in the UK, when presenting a rifle for inspection, we frequently had it rejected on the grounds that” spiders where nesting in the barrel” Quite true here !
Having transferred to Buea we laboured mightily there in terrible conditions, but I think it was the shared laughter and humour that always saved the day! On one occasion it was thought that we should take our daily anti-malarial tablet, Paladin, as a platoon by numbers in case the regime was not being followed. We gathered as a group in the pouring rain with our officer on parade observing the 1,2,3 from hand to mouth and swallow, when on 3 the Sgt who was leading coughed and out popped the pill to disappear in the mud! It took some time before we could stand to attention and that was the last we heard of swallowing pills by numbers! One day on a” you, you and you” basis, we were told to get our best kit on as a small group had been invited to dine with the District Commissioner. After several abortive kit inspections we finally passed muster and were driven to an impressive house with extensive gardens. The door was opened by a black servant in white suit and red sash and then warmly welcomed by the Commissioner and his family .Nevertheless we were not at ease and even less so when we saw the splendid crystal and silver laid out in the dining room. I don’t think any of us had dined in such splendour before. However after a drink the DC took us out to admire the rose beds and then, led by him, to “water” the roses which we all did with gusto.!
The day finally came when we had to put into practice our transfer to what were to be the camps for the main body which was then at sea on the Devonshire. Two signallers to each camp- Eric Forrester and myself to Mamfe and others to Kumba, Bamenda and of course a presence at Buea and Victoria. Our little convoy with our Nigerian drivers set off into the unknown loaded up with our rifles, kit and every conceivable piece of equipment with strict instructions- and threats if we failed- to open up the network on the scheduled time and day. When we finally arrived at Mamfe after a long journey and overnight stay at Kumba there was nobody there, just a bell tent and a windsock on the grass air strip, together with a native foreman leading a gang digging foundations who introduced himself as Napoleon! The RAF squadron, 230 SQD, flying in from Rhodesia and the UK had not arrived. However we had no time to dwell on that, all the kit had to stowed away and the Tilley lamps made ready for the long tropical nights and the invasion of insects, snakes, and the Cameroonian gorillas that we had been told would be visiting us! The following days we wracked our brains to work out how we could erect a suitable aerial as we could not climb the jungle trees as we would have done in the UK . Nobody had told us about the giant thorns, ants and snakes lurking in the branches to say nothing of the inaccessible size and height. Finally we hit upon an unconventional solution, as a temporary measure, a long horizontal dipole aerial from the windsock! We had been taught to be resourceful and so we were!
After a few days everything was in place, batteries were charged with the mobile generator we brought with us, codes and frequencies were sorted out and the RAF had arrived to our great relief. The network opened on time loud and clear! Shortly after that the Devonshire arrived at Victoria and the rest is history! During our time at Mamfe we had a very good relationship with the RAF and our small Army presence which eventually swelled to include a Pay Corp member and a ACC cook was treated well!
Thinking about those days ,the amount of trust and responsibility that the Army placed on young people is striking. The contribution people made to their country and to the British Cameroons was tremendous and not all were single. Many of the troops had wives and young families at home, such as Jim Thomas who subsequently replaced Eric at Mamfe. The entire operation, the logistics, the support to the UN who were ,as I recall, overseeing the Plebiscite, was in retrospect so impressive. I hope that others will continue to make some record of their experiences on your website. National Service was a Institution of which we shall never see the like again. My best wishes to all.
Mike Hargreaves, KORBR 1959/61. (no. 23645741)