Arnold Jordan wrote to me a few years ago and asked if I could use his story about his National service days. At the time I was writing my own story and I had dispensed with my other site.
Now I have this National Service Blog I think it is now appropriate Arnold’s interesting story should be read.
ARNOLD JORDAN’S NATIONAL SERVICE 1947 – 1949
On a notice board outside the local Council offices in the immediate post-war years, it was likely that you would see lads in their late teens intently studying the board. All kinds of information were pinned up, but the teenagers were looking at only one. This would tell them that at a certain time, if they were born between the stated dates and the initial letter of their surname was between the listed letters, they were to attend at the local labour office for registration.
For this was the time of National Service when every male, on reaching the age of 18, was expected to serve in the armed forces for two years in 1947 I was one of those lads regularly looking at the notices as they were updated, and watching my birth date creeping ever closer.
One Saturday morning I went for my regular look, and was horrified to find that the mentioned dates were now after my birthday. What was I supposed to do? Checking on the next registration day, I went to the labour office to tell them I had missed seeing the instruction. “It’s a wonder the police haven’t come looking for you” was thrown at me, but other than that I appeared to have escaped the wrath of the state!
A few weeks later I received my instructions to go for a medical examination. There are many jokes about these medicals, mainly intimating that if you can stand up you are fit enough for service life. I don’t recall much about it except this mental picture I have of half-a-dozen doctors staring up as one of them held a test-tube full of my urine to the light. I don’t know what they were looking for, but at the end of the session I was given a bit of paper informing me that I was A1.
It was that just after the August Bank Holiday of 1947 I received my call-up papers to present myself in a week’s time at Glen Parva barracks on the outskirts of Leicester. About 30 of us arrived, not knowing what to expect, and perhaps innocent of what was to come. If we thought home discipline was hard, it was nothing to that of the next six weeks. Mind you, we didn’t have much time to think about it as every minute of the day was filled, and a lot of it was spent on the barrack square – drill, drill and more drill.
We discovered that our sergeant could be quite a “softie” – but not on that square. He had the ability to strike terror into the heart of every recruit, and he also had the ability to teach us a few words that we had never encountered before! If our mothers had been present, I think they might have blushed. Apart from the drill, into those six weeks, were crammed route marches, cross-country runs, training for gas warfare (stumbling over rough terrain in masks with fogged-up eye pieces gave the medical-room a few extra jobs), and weapon training. Every morning there was a session of Physical Exercise and it was this PE that was almost my downfall.
Towards the end of the six weeks we had various tests, and one of the items in the PE test was to lift yourself up on the high bars just using arm power, so that your shoulders were parallel with the bar. My body obviously lacked development in that area and I just couldn’t do it. The PE corporal said that if I couldn’t do it I would fail the course, and would be back onto another six-week training session. It was whilst contemplating this horror that I suddenly felt my body rising, and hey-presto my shoulders were parallel with the bar. “Well done, you’ve managed it” said the corporal, and as I turned I noted that his arms were just dropping down, back to their relaxed position. I suppose it would be nice to consider that he felt sorry for me and as I had passed everything else he didn’t want to see me fail. More likely it was that he wanted to be rid of me as soon as possible.
Near to the end of the training we were interviewed for allocating us to various units. After being quizzed about any family history of military service, and finding none, the officer seemed very relieved as he had a quota to fill of TSBO (telephone switch-board operators) for the Royal Signals. So, 21024542 Pte. Jordan was added to the list, and would now be known as 21024542 Signalman Jordan.
Before leaving Glen Parva, we had the ceremony of the “passing out parade”. Proud (or otherwise) parents were invited to attend, and for this day much time was spent on kit preparation with many inspections by the sergeant until he considered us fit to show. I have to confess that when we stepped on to that square and the band started to play and our marching instructions were give, there was an upsurge of pride amongst the squad, and we drilled and marched on that tarmac with all precision expected on us. At last – we considered ourselves soldiers!
If we had left Glen Parva with a slight feeling of elation because we now considered ourselves soldiers, this feeling was soon deflated on arriving at the Royal Signals section of Catterick barracks. As we descended from the trucks that had brought us from the station, we were “greeted” by our sergeant-major. We were to find out that, contained within this man, were all the harrowing stories that have ever been told about sergeant-majors. We were to ask ourselves during the next few weeks “Is this thing even human?”
Towards the end of our twelve weeks there, it was quite likely that you would find 90% of the troop ready to commit murder. He was able to inflict every indignity that a soldier has ever been made to suffer.
We were told to dump our belongings in the barrack room and immediately report back to the parade ground, and were then subjected to an intense hour of “square bashing”. The sergeant-major examined every man in detail front and rear for discrepancies in our manner of dress, and informed us of our faults (of which every man had more than one) and told that if we ever appeared on parade without these faults corrected, there would be unspecified terrible trouble.
His parting remark was that we would be having similar drill every day, and it would be extended to two hours if he wasn’t satisfied with our progress. Welcome to Catterick!!
As well as the drill our daily routine consisted of morning Physical Exercise (almost on the same popularity level as the drilling) and various classes associated with our intended “trade”. Into the schedule were fitted sessions of weapon training, guard duties, various fatigues cookhouse ones were to be avoided if at all possible – I have nightmares recalling those mountains of potatoes that wanted peeling), and of course attention to ourselves and our uniforms so that hopefully our sergeant-major could find no fault.
Our course work consisted of learning the workings of a telephone exchange, and we were instructed on the operation of various types of switchboards, from the small field boards to the large 2000 line ones. We spent an equal amount of time on the various jobs of running a Signals communication office, handling messages by wireless telegraphy and redistributing them to the various regional offices. The phonetic alphabet became second nature to us and we were able to transmit messages by voice at incredible speeds. I remember that two of us had to record a specimen of message transmission for future classes. We found it so intense that when we had completed the task, one of us (I refuse to say which one) used language of certain words that should have not been used.
I suspect the class instructor sergeant had left the recording machine running on purpose and his comment “How can I use this to teach the classes of ATS girls?” was said in mock horror. Incidentally two things to mention from this, I would have thought that the alphabet used would have stuck in my memory, but it hasn’t. All I know is that when I have given, say, my post-code over the phone and the other person has replied with “J for John and T for Tommy?” I know that is not what I learnt. The second thing to mention is that this was the very first time that I had heard my recorded voice, and I just didn’t recognise myself. Perhaps it was the fact that this was before tape was used, the magnetic recording was done on a large spool of steel wire.
Although the training was hard, relaxation came with the time we were allowed out of camp. Army transport was provided to take us to Darlington on Saturday afternoons, and it was a short walk to get into the beautiful Yorkshire countryside. On Sunday mornings a room-mate and I would walk over the moors into the small town of Richmond, and attend the service at the Methodist Church. A middle-aged couple took us under their “wing” and invited us to their home to have a meal and spend a mid-week evening with them. To accept this invitation, we had to apply for a late pass, for which the inquisitive sergeant-major wanted all the details.
On our arrival at the house, we were surprised to find there were two giggly daughters, about our own ages. A pleasant evening was had, and the invitation was extended for other weeks. After the second visit, my friend and I got the strong impression that our hosts were keen to get their daughters off their hands, and that we might be able to help in that direction! Suffice to say, that due to “pressure of duty” we were unable to continue to accept their hospitality!
The following weeks seemed to go by quickly, and we took our final tests and were pronounced qualified. Once again we went before an officer who had a list of requirements, although the choice was somewhat limited. “Did we want to go to the War Office in London, or go overseas?” Thinking that perhaps it would be best to take advantage of free travel, and see a bit of the world, I opted for overseas. Within days, we were off to our transit camp, to await our allocation to a ship. This was in late December and we were told we would be going to the Middle East.
The thought of a warm climate cheered us, because December 1947 was perishing cold! How cold, we didn’t realise until we arrived at deserted a Dalton Airfield. We were housed in corrugated iron huts, with a small tortoise stove in the middle which only gave warmth for the few feet around it and we were strictly rationed for the fuel that we could burn. During the next few days, every scrap of wood for miles around, including some of the benches in the huts and doors of huts not being inhabited went into those stoves. Even so, we never managed to get much hot water, and morning ablutions meant that we went outside to stone troughs with cold water taps. Usually we had to thaw these before they would run, and you can understand that washing, shaving and teeth cleaning were all done at rapid speed.
It was now a few days before Christmas, and the unfortunate officer in charge called us all together. He informed us that we would be sailing from Southampton on December 27th, and this meant that we would have to stay in camp and not go home for Christmas. That was the nearest I ever came to a scene of mutiny whilst in the army and the officer realised he was in trouble and perhaps even in danger of his life. He promised to get back to the War Office. I don’t know what was said between them, but he came back to tell us we could go home, but he was personally responsible for all that would happen, and woe betide him if any of us went missing. We all gave him our word that we would return by the due time, and I’m pleased to say that we all kept our promise, save for one chap who was taken seriously ill, and ended up in hospital. We had all left our kit ready packed and so within a few hours we were on our way to Southampton, and embarked on the S.S. Otranto which quickly left harbour and sailed towards the Bay of Biscay.
December was not the time to expect calm seas in the Bay of Biscay. On the first morning the mess tables were laid out for breakfast, but only a few sat down to partake of the meal. The previous evening had been quite hilarious as we “slung” our hammocks below decks. The amount of space allocated for each pair of hammock hooks didn’t appear adequate to take the bulk of a human being, but in the end we managed to sort ourselves out.
Getting in and out of a hammock needs a lot of practice, but on that first evening we were so tired that we were only interested in getting in, the problem of extraction could wait until the morning. During the night I was aware of the movement of the ship, and felt a slight reaction from my stomach region, but I managed to sleep quite well.
It was in the morning when I lowered myself to the deck that it hit me, that terrible feeling of sickness. Obviously there were many others in the same state, and that was the reason for the low number wanting breakfast. On offer that morning was kippers, and those in the mood for eating could have as many as they wanted. I think the majority of these fish went back to where they came from in the sea.
I was one of the unlucky ones, because it was many days before this terrible nausea left me.
I would stagger up on deck, and just lay there watching the clouds in the sky go up and down and from side to side and feeling hopeless that there was nowhere to escape too.
By the time we reached Malta I was feeling somewhat better, and when we were offered the chance of a few hours ashore I quickly took it. The sea on all sides of the ship had become a floating market, with locals in crowds of small boats trying to sell us their wares, mainly carpets.
It was these crafts that turned themselves into taxis to ferry the hundreds of soldiers who wanted to go ashore. It was impressed on us that we had to be back on board at 3 p.m. or the boat would be gone and those left behind would find themselves on a court-martial. We didn’t have long to explore the harbour town of Valletta, but the lovely warm sunshine made us forget the grey skies of England. We had left behind a country struggling to get over the trauma of war, and many things were still on ration, including sweets. If I have one lasting memory of Valletta it is shop after shop displaying piles of Cadburys milk chocolate, a sight I hadn’t seen for over seven years! I have never fathomed why there was so much of it in Malta, and yet in the shops at home we hardly saw a bar. You can therefore imagine where a lot of our money went that day.
Quite a bit of the chocolate was consumed by the time we were looking for a boat to take us back on board. Fortunately we quickly found one and were back well before the departure time. Not everyone was so lucky and as the ladders were lifted from the side of the ship and she started to move, we could see a couple of the Maltese boats being rowed feverishly towards us. All those on deck stood at the rails shouting encouragement, but the result was inevitable. The images of these boats got smaller and I often wondered what happened to their occupants and where they ended up.
The Otranto was not just a troop-ship because on the two top decks she carried passengers and for the majority of time these areas were out of bounds to the rank and file. If any troops had civilian clothes with them there were permitted times when you could join these passengers. The regular period for “housey, housey” was one of these. (I don’t think the term “bingo” had been invented then).
Of course, we had to be on our best behaviour and it was most enjoyable sampling the more luxurious part of sea travelling, but with our arrival at Port Said in Egypt it was back to earth with a bang. We “riff-raff” were confined to our decks whilst the civilian passengers and their entire luggage were disembarked. It was evening before we moved ourselves and it was straight into trains to take us the length of the Canal Zone to Suez.
It was now that we discovered how the majority of the Egyptians in that area travelled by hitching free rides on the sides, roofs and if possible, the inside of the carriages. Some of those getting inside had more on their minds than the ride, and quite a number of soldiers arrived at Suez with articles of equipment missing, and even the watches from their wrists.
Living conditions at Suez were tents which was something new to us mostly they had the sides fully open to let the air through. The unexpected heat took some getting used to, especially as we were warned to expose ourselves to the sun gradually.
The temptation to throw off our clothing was great, but once again that threat of court-martial was thrown at us. Apparently if we reported sick with sunburn we were on a charge, as this was an “avoidable illness”. What was unavoidable was dysentery and you were indeed a lucky soldier if you got away without being hit with a dose of this. The warning time of an unfortunate occurrence was very slim!
Eventually the time came to be told of our postings. On the morning parade names and destinations were read out, and soon it came to the group of us that had all travelled together from our training at Catterick. After each of our names came “Palestine”.
Now this was not good, Palestine was in turmoil as Jews across the world attempted to reach their “promised land”. Unfortunately Britain had gone back on its promise, and was doing all it could to keep the incomers out. It had reached a state of conflict, and it certainly wasn’t a good time to be a member of the Royal Signals in Palestine.
Keeping communications going was of top importance, and telephone lines were continually sabotaged requiring signalmen to climb poles to repair them, consequently becoming easy targets for hidden snipers. The list of postings to this troubled zone continued, and I knew that it was getting very close to my name, and sure enough – “542 Signalman Jordan ……… 4th Air Formation Signals, Ismailia”. Such relief! Next day, it was in a truck for the journey to the outskirts of that town, situated half-way along the Suez Canal.
Our arrival at 4th Air Formation Signals gave us a let-down from the strict military discipline that we had become used to. This small camp with about 50 soldiers seemed to have a law unto itself. You were expected to be “properly dressed” when on duty, but other than that you could go about the camp in a slovenly fashion! At breakfast everyone seemed to have just thrown on whatever was nearest to them, and you even had the sight of military trousers and shirt, with sockless feet pushed into decrepit old sandals.
Everyone was more or less properly attired for the morning roll call parade, but all the parade officer was concerned with was that all those listed as belonging to the outfit were alive and well and in camp! There were four of us from the original Catterick training course, and it was left to us to man the small switchboard, in a lonely small hut on the edge of camp. The rota was easy to settle, three members on eight hour shifts, and one off duty but in reserve should anything unforeseen occur. We found that calls going through the board were few and far between. It was a bit busy first thing in the morning, when there appeared to be calls to staff due on duty, making sure they were awake and out of bed!
During the day a number of calls were made to places outside of Egypt, but all these were put on scrambler so that nothing could be overheard. Quite a number were to the Kingdom of Jordan. During our time with this unit no-one told us what its purpose was, and any questions were quickly passed over. I wouldn’t say that we were associated with spying, but it would seem that “collecting of information” about happenings in the Middle East was the concern of 4th Air Formation Signals.
This easy schedule meant that we were able to frequently go into Ismailia proper. It was a pleasant place, with a good selection of shops, park and garden areas. However, there was one thing that spoilt any trip into town – the shoe-shine boys! It seemed impossible to get away from their pestering and the forever persistent bleating to have our shoes cleaned. Sometimes it became quite aggressive, with the threat that liquid polish would be thrown over our uniforms. Often they were able to get together a small hostile crowd, and getting out of an awkward situation often proved tricky.
Even going into town in civilian clothes didn’t help, the British soldier seemed to stand out from the crowd, no matter how he dressed.
On Saturdays, quite a number of the outfit wanted to go to Ismailia for the evening, and trucks would be organised. Coming out of the cinema one night I lost sight of the main group and found myself in a strange area. Not trying to panic it was some time before I found the place where the trucks were parked. To my dismay they weren’t, they had already departed! It wasn’t all that far back to the camp, so I set out to walk it. Fortunately for me it was a moon-lit night, but even so all sorts of rustlings and cracking’s came from the roadside trees. I suppose I began to feel very vulnerable and I imagined every sound heard, someone was tracking me and ready to spring on me on that lonely road.
The shout of “Who goes there” from the guard on the camp gate was extremely welcome, but it was so unusual for a returning soldier to walk into camp at that late hour that he took a little convincing that I was who I said I was and belonged there.
There was one thing about this camp that vividly stays in my mind, and that was meal times. You collected your meal at the cookhouse, and then walked across a piece of open ground into tents where there were tables for you to sit and eat the meal. That small piece of open ground was a real assault course! Always hovering overhead were these large hawk-like birds (we had a name for them, but I won’t repeat it here) and as soon as they saw a plate of food they took action. They seemed to work in pairs, one would attack the head of the individual carrying the plate and the other would scoop off as much food as possible at one go, and the pair would depart to consume the spoils. Their success rate was pretty high, so much so that any soldier arriving in the tent with an untouched full plate was loudly cheered.
It was only a few weeks that we were at this camp. One morning the CO informed us that our services were no longer required. We were never told why, and I occasionally wonder what the reason was, and who, if anyone, took over the manning of the unit switchboard.
In later months when I mentioned 4th Air Formation Signals no-one had ever heard of them, and a clerk in a regimental office even went as far as checking the roll of all regiments and units in Egypt, and never found them mentioned. Perhaps when we left, the whole set-up disbanded and faded away like a puff of smoke, but I didn’t imagine my time there!
A couple of days after our meeting with the CO we were told that we were being posted to 3GHQ Fayid. This information was greeted by huge grins from personnel who knew the place – “You won’t know what’s hit you” was thrown at us. We were further informed that it was strict dress at all times, even going to breakfast was in full uniform complete with blancoed gaiters and polished boots.
There would be no escape, because a sergeant would always be at the cook-house door, scrutinising everyone who entered. For those who were not on their working shifts, there were drills, rifle and machine gun shooting on the range, exercises and various other tasks that could be thought up by the enthusiastic officers and NCO’s.
Goodbye lazy times at Ismailia – it was good whilst it lasted!
Arriving at 3GHQ Fayid was like leaving a little village and coming to the big city. This was the headquarters of the Middle East Land Forces, with the facilities to manage troops at all the bases in Middle East countries. There were huge workshops, airfields, and administration blocks, acre upon acre of storage areas for vehicles, tanks, and guns. The whole place was full of activity 24 hours a day. There was even a shopping centre, mainly for the married families billeted there.
There were cinemas (somewhat basic), numerous recreation clubs run by various charitable organizations, and a forces club on the edge of the great Bitter Lake, where on a day off, you could enjoy swimming or a bit of boating. When we arrived we were quickly allocated to a tent which fortunately carried a number, or I don’t think we would ever have found it again. We weren’t allowed to linger long. after a wash and a meal we were summoned to the presence of the major in charge of the GHQ telephone exchange, we were given our shift times and told to report as “observers” on the next shift.
The exchange was some distance away and we were taken there by lorry. It was a vast building, and contained switchboards the size of which we had never seen before. It had 2000 internal lines and about 500 external ones. We weren’t allowed to “observe” for long, because we were given a headset and put onto the board. Despite its size, the principle of operation was the same as any other board, and indeed it was somewhat easier, because if a lot of lights were coming up on your section and it was hard to cope. Operators on other sections could take the calls off you onto their board. Although extremely busy, I found it more pleasant and interesting than the quiet switchboards, boredom never had a chance to set in. I remember that I had only been there about five minutes, when a red light flashed. We had been taught that these priority lights had to be dealt with in a fraction of a second, and I’m glad to say that reaction kicked in. I immediately took the call and later found out afterwards that it was the “big man” in charge of MELF. So I would probably have been on an enquiry on my first day if I hadn’t dealt with it quickly!
From then on it was regular shifts. Night ones were a bit quiet and occasionally you were allowed a bit of “shut-eye”. This was a real bit of luxury really, because all the equipment needed to be kept at a constant temperature, so the building was air-conditioned. Complete bliss in comparison to sleeping in the heat of the tent. Unfortunately too much sleep wasn’t allowed off duty and guard duties came round frequently.
This was a sensitive area, and although there was a bit of anti-British feeling, it hadn’t reached the real hatred that became apparent a few years later. Even so, we had to be vigilant and there were a number of episodes where arms were fired. Hopefully it was not ourselves that were involved, because every incident was fully investigated and a lot of paper work had to be completed. It was at this time that a changeover was made, and instead of the faithful rifle we were issued with the new Sten guns.
These were very unreliable and totally inaccurate and scared us all to death when we fired them. It was when on guard duty with a Sten gun that the orderly officer approached me out of the darkness, and reprimanded me for not saluting him. I stood at attention, but informed him that as far as I was aware there was no known instruction as to how to salute with a Sten gun. This rather took him aback, he turned to his sergeant behind him, who confirmed what I said and he departed muttering to himself something like “What’s the British army coming to?”. As far as I know the issue was never resolved, so I would be very interested to know what would have happened if the CO had arrived to inspect the guard, and we were instructed to “Present Arms”!
After a couple of months on the switchboard, the sergeant in charge of the shift informed me that he was pleased with my operation and was going to recommend me for the exalted position of deputy shift NCO, which meant I was to become a lance-corporal. Before I got too excited I was told that this would be, for the time being, an “acting” promotion.
This meant, that I received no extra pay for it; however, I liked the responsibility. I could now even throw my weight about a bit!
What I didn’t like was that I was to be sent to El Ballah on an NCO’s course for two weeks. This was a bit like going back to basic training, but I found it worthwhile. I always thought a lance corporal was neither one thing nor another. A sergeant or a corporal could pass the buck down to you to undertake things, but you were stuck with it and nowhere to pass it! However it had its benefits, and when that great increase in pay of a few shillings finally arrived I felt a rich man! So life carried on in a routine manner in both work and spare time making things quite pleasant, but there were changes afoot.
Female members of the armed services were very rare in Egypt. I suppose it was because when we first got there it was classed as being “on active service”. In those days, female members were not in active service zones. So that is why we were taken aback to learn that the ATS were coming as switch-board operators, and the male operators would be going on other duties, except for the NCO’s. We would remain in charge of the shifts, and would train the ATS in all the work of the GHQ switchboard.
Within a couple of weeks I had a new female shift. Now I don’t wish to appear unkind, but I don’t think any of them would be entering glamour contests, some would be more at home putting the shot in the women’s Russian team of the Olympics! The trouble was they were a few hundred females amongst thousands of men, and they intended to make the most of it! The only way to survive was to be really strict and horrible and keep their minds on their work.
Now it was always the perk that the NCO’s on night duty could put someone else in charge for an hour or so, and get their head down. All I will say is that I wouldn’t have tried it if there hadn’t been a lock on the door!
It wasn’t long before we had done as required and the ATS NCO’s gradually took charge and we too were surplus to requirements. I was sent to the Signals office, something entirely new to me and I found it somewhat boring. Boredom really set in later, because the clerk in charge of filing was off home for demob, and because for some reason an NCO had to be in charge of the files. I was put in this little office away from any other contact and was pushing bits of paper in files for a couple of hours a day, and then had nothing to do for the other six hours.
I just couldn’t envisage doing this for my remaining time in Egypt, so when I saw that volunteers were required for a “crash cipher course” my name went in like a shot. If I had gone in for this in England I would have gone to the War Office for six months training. Such was the shortage of cipher operators that this course was to cram it all into six weeks, and so it was off to El Ballah again.
Getting there wasn’t quite so easy a second time. I was given a rail pass to El Ballah station and told a truck would pick me up. I got off at this little station stuck in the middle of the desert and no truck. I waited about an hour and the “station master” was shutting the place up ready to depart. This was the time when things had hotted up a bit between the Jews and the Arabs and twice trucks passed me by carrying Arabs waving guns around. I was even invited to jump up and they would take me to where I wanted to go but I declined!
By now the light was beginning to go, and I felt I was in trouble. In the far distance I could see the barbed wire of what must be an army camp, so with my rifle and all my gear I hauled myself across the desert. Even when I got to the wire, I had to keep walking all around it until I found the gate and was challenged by the guard.
In the guard-room the sergeant made a few phone calls and told me to go and get a meal and a truck would eventually come from my destination to pick me up. It turned out that on the camp that I was going to was an air-strip and on that afternoon a private plane was being warmed up, so that King Farouk could flee the country if Jewish/Arab relations got a bit too hot. With all this going on the matter of picking up a lowly lance corporal got forgotten.
The cipher course was very intense and pressurised. There was a lot to cram into those six weeks, and a lot of things to retain in one’s memory. The chief instructor threatened me with failure, because one of the requirements was to be able to do proper touch typing. Unfortunately I had been messing about on typewriters before I went into the army, so of course I had devised my own form of fingering (not quite two fingered, but nearly). The instructor gave up in the end trying getting me to do it the proper way, and said he was turning a blind eye. His requirements of me were the speed and accuracy of my typing, and as I managed to type without error (something I can’t manage now!) and still could beat the speed limit of the machine, he was satisfied that I would be able to handle cipher messages.
At the completion of the course I donned another stripe, and Corporal Jordan was assigned to GHQ cipher office.
We had messages arriving in different coded forms, and we had books, perforated tapes and type rollers in teleprinter machines which were changed daily, to help us unravel the message forms. It wasn’t always straightforward, because all of these messages came to us via radio links and the reception from all parts of the world varied greatly. The easiest ones to decode were those received as perforated tape, which when run through a machine parallel with the “code” tape of that day, it would print out in recognisable words.
That was the theory, but in practice two things happened because these messages should be in groups of four letters. Quite often there were only three and an imaginary letter would have to be inserted, or whilst the groups of four would be there, they were incorrect due to the transmission difficulties. Hopefully looking at the whole message you could make sense of it, but if there was any doubt you had to ask for a retransmission. Normally no problem, but every message had a grade of priority and if one of these was headed “Flash” all other work had to be dropped to rush this one out.
The main task was to produce readable messages, but of course we could not help taking an interest in the contents. It was not until I entered the cipher office, that I realised all that was going on at that time in the Middle East. It was quite hair-raising to see how often we were on the brink of major problems, which without diplomacy could escalate so easily.
At this time I said that never again would I believe what I read in the newspapers. We would have a day of frantic message decoding and knew all that was happening and then next day I would read the paper. What I read there bore no relation to real events, and even today I never accept what I read as the truth. However, there is no doubt that this was my most interesting time of National Service. As well as the interest you felt that you were really doing something that mattered.
In early 1949 the period of service was gradually reducing. We had expected that we would be involved for two years but those getting demobbed were going earlier until it got down to eighteen months. One of the soldiers in my tent was due to depart for embarkation in two days when the whole camp was summoned on parade to be addressed by the Commanding Officer. He told us that there was a critical shortage of personnel to cover all the military tasks in the Middle East, and the War Office had ordered that all service would be extended by six months and this was to take effect immediately.
The next time I saw the soldier from my tent, there were tears in his eyes. His bag was packed, all the material issued to him for camp use had been handed in and now he wasn’t going, believe me there were a lot more soldiers feeling just a bit choked that day!
If there was a bright side to this, it still looked as if no-one would do more than two years and in fact at the end of July 1949 I received all my paperwork to proceed to Port Said transit camp to await a ship for home. My spirits drooped somewhat when it was found that those already at the camp had been waiting weeks to get onto a boat. The days there were dreary – we paraded every morning and the camp sergeant allocated us jobs for the day. So it came that one morning I was made orderly corporal for the day. The main task of which was to oversee the work in the admin office. It was here that a little light switched on in my head, which made me do something that one is advised not to do in the army, volunteer for anything. I approached the sergeant and said that I realised his problem of allocating jobs every day, and if it would help I would volunteer to be the regular orderly corporal.
So each day found me in the office grappling with lists of names to match up with places on various ships. There seemed to be no proper plan to take these names in any special order, so there was no problem ensuring that Corporal Jordan was on the list for the next ship out of Port Said! I have to admit that since that time I have had little pangs of conscience and wonder how long some of my compatriots had to wait to get home, but I’m afraid it was every man for himself at the time!
Our first sight of England was Blackpool Tower on the horizon. We sailed past New Brighton and into Liverpool. We had a long wait to get through customs (what did they think impoverished soldiers would be bringing home), and were put on a train to Aldershot.
Very speedily we were demobbed and given our rail passes. I don’t know quite how it happened, but we were supposed to hand in all our uniform, but I came home in my army boots which served as good gardening boots for many a year. Planning the rail journey was a bit complicated and I got as far as Leicester at 3 o’clock in the morning, and found that the first train to home was not for another four hours. This was “what the heck” time so I went out of the station to a taxi firm and another soldier and I shared a taxi for half of the journey home, he having a lesser distance to go. I never knew if my parents really appreciated being woken up so early to greet their returning soldier son, but it was good (and strange) to be home.
I had three weeks demob leave due to me, but of course I had to think about civilian work, but that’s not part of this story. However, I still had one little skirmish with the army. I received a letter with a money order detailing what was due to me, and saying that this was “in full and final settlement”. I immediately wrote a letter back on the lines “like heck it is”. I don’t know why I did it, but when I was made up to full corporal I made a note of the date and number of the regimental daily order on which it was published. I had never received any extra pay for this promotion, and the “final payment” made no mention of it. The fact that I was able to quote this information meant that I received another money order literally by return of post, bringing matters to a satisfactory close.
There are two “happenings” missing from this narrative, mainly due to the fact that I cannot recall exactly when they took place, although the memory of them is very distinct. The first of these was rather unpleasant. I was due to be on guard duty that evening and I was preparing my uniform ready for the guard mounting parade and realised that I was becoming very “woozy” – almost to the stage of being unconscious. Someone fetched the orderly sergeant who told me to report to the medical room as “special sick”. I managed to get there, but found the room locked, so I just sat on the step feeling very sorry for myself. Eventually an orderly arrived to prepare for the next sick parade, and immediately telephoned for the medical officer, who arrived quite quickly. He told me that I had malaria and would have to go to the GHQ hospital. He then left, and I was in the hands of the orderly who, after making many phone calls, told me that he could not get any transport and I would have to make my own way about a mile up the road to the hospital. I think I answered him in a civil manner but he got the message that I was not capable of walking and I would sit there until someone came to fetch me. It was not too long afterwards that a small truck arrived to give me a rather jolting ride to hospital.
When we first arrived in Egypt it was a malaria free zone, but after about six months we were all issued with mosquito nets which we were ordered to use for our sleeping and given further instructions as to how we should avoid being bitten. Obviously, the mosquitoes were sometimes ahead of the game and despite rolling my sleeves down and covering myself up.
I think I got the “bite” when kipping down for an hour on night duty at the telephone exchange. I have to say I was well looked after in hospital There were six of us in this small ward, and our days were ruled by a rather attractive matron with flaming red hair.
Obviously there was a bit of banter between us and matron, but we soldiers knew how far we could go, because the question of rank came into things, after all, she carried the shoulder-crown of major so in the end what she said was law!
I don’t remember how long I was in hospital, but the period following discharge was bliss! Two weeks of excused all duties, including correct dress followed by a further two weeks of light duties. I quite relished relaxing on my bed during the day, when the orderly sergeant came on his inspection of the lines and as far as he was concerned I was untouchable. One day he came accompanied by the regimental sergeant-major and it was obvious that not being able to criticize me went very much against the grain.
The second “happening” was leave. There wasn’t much of this on offer during my time, we were always being told that leave was a privilege, not a right. Occasionally there were periods when leave was available in Cairo, but this wasn’t regular due to the fact that conditions there were not always of the best for British soldiers because even in those days there was quite a bit of anti-British feeling. There were a few conditions if you were successful in getting this leave, the most obvious being that you had to wear civilian clothes at all times. Obviously you were not to go alone and all the passes were issued in pairs.
A you also had to stay at one of the nominated approved hotels.
One of the friends on my shift and I applied for a week in Cairo, and it was eventually granted. We were issued with all the paperwork and rail passes and then a couple of days before our departure my friend informed me that a course he was booked for had been brought forward and he was off on that. Somewhat deflated, I wondered what to do and decided that as I had all the documents in my hands I would go alone. I did wonder if there would be any comebacks on my return, but that wasn’t my uppermost thought at the time.
Early on the departure morning I was at the little railway platform and mounted the incoming train, bound for Cairo. The only other person in the carriage was a well-dressed “business” man, complete with briefcase. It was not long before I was taken back to that first train ride when we had just arrived in Egypt and some of the soldiers were being skilfully relieved of their wrist-watches. Every so often, an Arab “urchin” would come into the carriage and silently offer the “business man” a watch. He would carefully examine it and reach into his brief case and give the boy a few coins. This continued throughout the journey, and I deemed it prudent to be permanently looking in another direction each time the corridor door opened!
My first impression of Cairo was the huge railway station, with vast tiled walls. It took me a while to find my way out of it, and found what looked to be a respectable taxi to take me to my nominated hotel.
Fortunately all the staff spoke English, and a young Sudanese house-boy took me under his wing and introduced me to some of the other guests. This hotel was used as a “rest and relaxation” place for BOAC staff (there’s a name from the past – British Overseas Aircraft Corporation). They stayed there for a short while before changing their flights and rotas. It was here that I met Anita, a BOAC stewardess who was having a three day break before changing from internal African flights to a Far Eastern one. Anita had a Greek father and a French mother and I have to admit the resulting mix was quite attractive! Whenever the name Anita is mentioned I get a quizzical look from my wife Betty and I don’t think she believes me when I say that the main attraction of knowing Anita was that she arranged for me to have the use of a BOAC car, complete with chauffeur. My little Sudanese friend arranged a guide for me, and so I was able to tour Cairo in style, with the climax being a visit to the Sphinx and Pyramids. When I see this great wonder of the world on TV today, I am appalled. There are of course hundreds of tourists, but the tarmac roads, the bus-parks, the complete commercial exploitation of it all – it makes me appreciate that I saw it then, and I would never want to go back.
In the late 1940’s it was all in its natural state, all in the windy desert. The only other people I saw beside my guide were another Arab on a camel, and in the distance a shepherd with half-a-dozen sheep at a small well. I was able to explore at will, without constraint, although of course at that time the tombs were not opened up for visiting. Just wandering around I was able to think of how it would be all those centuries ago and I really got the feel of the place. How todays visitors get any inspiration from how it is presented now I do not know. To have a further night-time visit and to see it again, but under the wonderful Egyptian clear, starry sky was an experience almost out of this world. Like all holidays it was soon back to earth with a bump, and a return to the regular army routine.
There shouldn’t really be another chapter to this story, but the army had a nasty sting in its tail – it hadn’t finished with me. When I received my demob papers I was informed that I had been placed on the “Z Reserve”. This was the norm for all National Servicemen – we didn’t really think much about it, we realised that in theory we could be quickly recalled back into service, but we didn’t expect it to happen, but for me it did.
The carve-up of territory after World War Two left some unsatisfactory situations, and one of these was the country of Korea. Korea was divided in half with Russia having control of the North, and the Americans the South. This meant that North Korea became an armed communist state, whilst South Korea went the democratic way. In 1950 North Korea, with the backing of the Chinese tried to unify the country by crossing the fixed border and invading the South. Britain and America were alarmed that this could develop into a major conflict affecting further areas and gave its full backing to resisting this invasion. Large numbers of British troops were committed to fighting in Korea which left our forces somewhat depleted in other hotspots of the world, and the government decided on the recall of some of the Z Reserve. It was not intended that they should be full combat troops, but rather that they would be trained so that they could quickly take over the jobs of regular soldiers in this country, freeing them for overseas. So it was that the name of “Jordan” was pulled out of the hat!
I was ordered to report to a camp in Dorset for two weeks during that summer. My employer was half expecting this to happen, so he was not surprised. I don’t know if he was happy with the government instruction that he had to pay me for those two weeks. Arriving in Dorset, the small number of us brought to the camp found that we had been attached to the Territorial Army who were on their annual two week training. We were the first of the recalled Z Reserve, and I don’t think they really knew what to do with us. During that two weeks we appeared to be connected to those responsible for defence of attack from the air of southern Britain. We spent a considerable amount of time in control rooms which plotted the position of aircraft, but never really did much actual work. We had the usual parades and weapon training, but it was all a bit half-hearted and we felt that all the time it was a case of “what shall we do with them next?”. I understand that later on they got this Z recall more organised and subsequent returning soldiers had quite a hard time of it during their fortnight.
As for us, it had been decided that the “training” would end with a big exercise. I cannot recall what it was all supposed to be about, but for myself and another member of the group, we were to be installed in a remote field with a portable 20 line switch-board, and pass messages from one section to another. Early in the morning we were taken in a truck with our switchboard and the driver and his mate connected it up to wires that had been thrown out into the hedgerows the day before and we were told that we would be picked up in the evening. It was a glorious day, and we decided to make the most of it and we would divide our time into two shifts. If things got hectic, the second member could be brought back into the fray. Soon after our arrival the buzzer sounded on the board, but answering the line concerned there appeared to be no-one there. For the rest of the day, nothing happened at all – not a call. I don’t know if the wires were cut in some distant field, if there was something wrong with the board, or if the exercise evolved so that we were not required. My abiding memory therefore of my recall into the army in 1950 was laying back on the grass on a warm sunny day with blue skies, overlooking the fantastic beauty of Lulworth Cove. The perfect way to end my National Service!
In those post-war years it was accepted that we would all be serving for two years in the armed forces. It was an unsettling time, because it meant that a lot of us never really settled down to deciding on our future working life. Between leaving school and our call-up, it was a bit of a wasted period because we felt that we had to get this National Service out of the way. However, we had no choice and looking back on it now I have to ask what influence did it have on me? I think that for me, and a lot of others, it meant that we grew up quickly. It was a rapid transition from teenager to man. At the time we felt it to be an annoying disruption to our lives, and the one thought was “let’s get this out of the way and back to a normal routine”. So – did I regret it? The answer is probably surprising – No! It was a time of comradeship, a concentration of learning, dealing with undreamt of situations, a feeling that at least in my particular sphere I was doing something useful. I met men from every walk of life, all becoming as one when in uniform, I saw places and was put in situations that would not have happened but for the army.
At the time we were all longing for that boat to take us back home, but looking back on it now I appreciate my time as a National Serviceman. I could have done without the dysentery and the malaria – the aftermath of these affected me for a number of years afterwards, but in the main it wasn’t a bad period of my life at all.