John sent me this short story a few years back. At the time I never published it. It is an unusual view of John’s time doing his national service.
I was 25 years of age when I began my National Service. I was married with a six month old son and my wife and I lived in two rooms in a house belonging to my wife’s Aunt.
For five years from the age of 17, I had served one of those now old fashioned apprenticeships at Henry Meadows Ltd., a manufacturer of gasoline, diesel engines and matching transmissions. The apprenticeship enabled my National Service to be deferred until it was completed and then, because I was employed on work that enabled me to continue deferment. I made the decision to gamble on the ending of National Service in the relatively near future. When I reached the age of twenty five, the gamble was lost and I was requested to present myself at Blandford in Dorset to begin my National Service in R.E.M.E.
The six long weeks of square bashing finally came to an end knowing I was fit, I could stamp my right boot on to the ground with the best of them, I could bull a boot and get a coating of shiny wax on the toe, I could fire a rifle and a Bren gun, and I could take the Bren gun apart and re-assemble it while lying on my side, I could name parts and I had all the other useful attributes that the Army considered I needed for my future. I had not however developed a liking for the Army. The passing out parade was memorable in that the band expected to play during the ceremony was somehow unable to attend and a lone piper and drums was recruited at short notice. The only tune that the piper could play was “Scotland the Brave” and having marched to it and then being positioned immediately in front of the piper while he played his one tune repertoire over and over while the Commanding Officer slowly inspected each man of each platoon, was an experience that forever made me hate the out of tune strains of a Scottish bagpipe and the oft heard notes of “Scotland the Brave”.
I was now a qualified member of R.E.M.E., almost, and I was ready to do whatever was needed to make my two years pass as quickly as possible. I was posted to Arborfield near Reading which in those days of 1956 was where the Training Battalion was located. It was also the location for the R.E.M.E. Depot from where all R.E.M.E. personnel who were being posted to places around the world, departed. Also Arborfield was the location for an Army Apprentice school. I had been posted to the Headquarter Company of the 5th Training Battalion. Of course in the fine army tradition, no paperwork had preceded me so I wasn’t expected. I was told that until the paperwork caught up with me, I was too loose myself and was given a bed in a room in a remote corner of the camp. I then proceeded to learn the layout of the camp and how to get lost.
The 5th Training Battalion concentrated upon teaching the intricacies of the complex electronic and mechanical workings of the Army tanks and other equipment used by the British Army. This included the system whereby the gun on the tank would maintain a constant aiming position irrespective of the movement of the tank during its manoeuvring’s and considered to be at the time very high tech. The battalion also provided training for the various radar systems that the Army used. The duties of the headquarter staff was to provide support and the organizational structure to all this training activity. Included in this was a drawing office that was to become my home for the duration. The task of the drawing office was to provide all the training aids needed by the teaching staff at the training battalion.
With retrospect I suppose I was not a good example of a keen recruit as I was a very reluctant member of the British Army. I resented being forced to become part of an organization in which I had no interest and I made no attempt to fight the system, I had quickly developed a healthy cynical attitude to what I considered to be a very inefficient organization, that had taken my liberty and placed me in an open prison that was called National Service.
This was all at a critical point in my career and I was now being expected to give two years to what I considered to be a complete waste of time. I decided very early on what I should do and that was to make the best of the situation. My plan was to use the system and the circumstance in which I found myself, to my advantage in as many ways as possible.
One of the characters on the base was of course the RSM. As most RSM’s he was attached to his pace stick which he carried around as his badge of office. I only saw him use it for one thing and that was when he charged onto his beloved parade ground shouting in his best RSM voice to chase a flock of birds that had dared alight on his beloved patch of concrete. He would wave his pace stick high in the air as he ran onto the concrete and although it was such a strange action, everyone ignored what was going on, including the birds. The birds would soon return from their place of safety when he had departed. The RSM certainly helped to add to my cynical view of all things army. His one other action for which he was noted was his practice to choose a passing soldier and finding something wrong with his appearance or behaviour either actual or more likely imagined. He would point out the misdemeanour in the traditional army loud voice face to face manner.
The afternoon I arrived at the camp this RSM saw me make a mistake, although later on, in my career at Arborfield, I realized that it turned out to my advantage. On my first afternoon I had no idea who was who and which side was “up” at that time. I saw this person walking towards me who looked, in my very limited experience, to be an officer. So I saluted it. Immediately his voice stopped me in my tracks and in, for him, a very gentle manner he pointed out that as a lowly RSM, he didn’t warrant a salute. He said in future I should keep my salutes to reward the numerous officers that I would see.
From that point on I am convinced that my wasted salute did two things. Firstly it brought me to his attention quickly but secondly from that day on I found I could pass him with complete confidence as he never once pulled me over or stopped me for some appearance or other reason. While my colleagues would always move through the camp in expectation of being stopped. My early salute had paid off and taught me another lesson about what I became to know as the Army mentality.
I hated parades, but then didn’t everyone who were forced to take part? I could see no reason for them except to cause a great deal of work with a potential of being punished for some appearance or other problem. I had adopted the habit of always leaving one of my buttons half fastened that drew attention away from anything that might have been punishable. This simple half button always seemed to satisfy the inspecting officer as his eyes found some not punishable defect, and then pass on to look at the next man.
Being not at my best first thing in the mornings the parades I hated most were those on Monday mornings. In my resolve to not kick against the system I had been searching for something that would allow me to miss this Monday morning ritual in an approved manner. Then I found it.
The camp had a fire brigade. Or rather it had a water pump mounted to a two wheeled trailer that carried hoses, standpipes, and a couple of stirrup pumps. It was fully equipped to an Army specification to be able to fight any fire on the base, before the civilian fire brigade could arrive. The fact that the engine didn’t have an electric start and the alternative was the starting handle was one of those things one learned very quickly to accept, but thank God no-one ever had to rely on the piece of equipment to help save their life in a fire. I found that there was a group who were trained to operate this fire pump and they comprised of individuals selected from Headquarters Staff. They had the reputation of being trained to the peak of condition to fight any kind of fire, but I found the truth was a little different. The important part was that training for this critical and important safety operation took place on Monday mornings “at the same time as the parade!” So I quickly volunteered and as others who worked in the Drawing Office had control of membership, as soon as a vacancy occurred, the job was mine.
I did have one reservation in that just before I had arrived at the camp there had been an explosion at a local fireworks factory and the members of the fire picket had taken part in searching the remains of the building for body parts. I reasoned that this was unlikely to happen twice and as the advantages seemed to outweigh the disadvantages, with a smile on my face I looked forward to missing the Monday morning parades. The procedure each Monday morning was to assemble at the shed in which the fire pump was housed, and then take the pump trailer outside. The trailer was designed to be towed by a Jeep type vehicle but in accordance with the time honoured Army tradition, in all the time I was a member of the picket, there was never a vehicle allowed to be used for this purpose. Our group would gather around the trailer, each choosing a position where he could either push pull or guide the trailer, and off we would go. Advancing at a trot always in step of course, and passing down the service road that ran past the parade square and the massed ranks of the lined up platoons enjoying their Monday morning parade. Always we were spurred on by muted or otherwise cheers or shouted remarks as we made our way to where we did our training. We there awaited the appearance of the Fire Officer. The Fire Officer was our Platoon Captain who had the job of providing training instruction in the art of fighting fires. I think in all the times I was a member of the Fire Picket he turned up twice and each time demonstrated very well that he knew next to nothing about his responsibilities. I must admit however that he was always immaculately turned out in his uniform, so he at least looked the part. My cynical attitude was once more forever reinforced. So we trained ourselves. Some mornings we would start the pump engine but as it was not equipped with an electric start as I said earlier, we had to use the starting handle. Achieving success and getting the engine to start was for most of the time shall we say, very difficult. Sometimes miraculously we did manage to start this pig of an engine after numerous tries, and we were able to pump water and to get the hoses wet. When we did this it was clear to us all that if we were called to a fire it would have burned itself out long before we could have contributed. Even if we had been able to get there we would have been so exhausted pushing or pulling the trailer and then trying to start the engine, we would have been little use in an emergency.
Our prayers that a real fire would never occur must have been effective as we were never called out while I was a member the picket. In the training periods we became experts at appearing busy. We did have a tower where we hoisted the wet hose pipes. When we had one that had to be dried out after we had managed to push water through it, and climbing the tower and re-arranging the drying hoses was always good for a half hour or two. Some days we would practice with a ladder drill. We would place our extended ladder against a second floor window and by using the traditional fireman’s carry, bring someone down the ladder. We soon grew tired of carrying each other down the ladder as being carried down the ladder once, by one of your colleagues, was an experience you didn’t want to repeat and small and light volunteers were very hard to find.
In those days I weighed in at around 140 pounds so until I was able to hide behind a couple of stripes, I was usually the patsy that was carried. With eyes tightly shut and fingers and everything else crossed, resting on the shoulders of a shaking colleague as he climbed down the rungs of the ladder was never something you wanted to experience very often. A very good reason for the expression “——- that for a game of soldiers.” Sometimes we did see action. We would get a call out to a chimney fire in one of the houses provided for the officers. Most times the fire was out when we got there, understandably so as our instruction was that the equipment to be used in order to put the fire out was a bucket of water and a stirrup pump. These would be carried, after we had run a mile or two pulling and pushing the trailer, into the house and to the base of the offending chimney. We would then proceed with skilled manipulation of the pump nozzle, to squirt water up the chimney until the fire was out. When the fire was seen to be out the procedure was to pack up and return to base, leaving the occupants to clear up the mess of the mixture of soot and water we had made in the house. This policy certainly had a desired effect in that if a chimney fire occurred, (coal fires in the houses were the usual form of heating), and the occupants would make strenuous and usually successful efforts, to put it out themselves before the troop of exhausted members of the fire picket arrived to demonstrate their expertise.
One of the most important jobs I managed to obtain at Arborfield was to organize coaches that would take those who could and wanted to go home for the weekend with the privilege of either a 48 or 36 hour pass. Coaches would leave the camp at 5.00PM on Friday evenings for those with a 48 hour pass to either Birmingham or Manchester arriving back between 3.00AM to 5.00 on Monday mornings. For those with a 36 hour pass the coach would leave at 12.00 noon on Saturday to Birmingham and return for around 3.00AM on Monday mornings. In addition to this I would arrange coaches on Wednesday sports afternoons to go to Wembley Stadium in London when International football matches were taking place. This would be followed by a show at one of the London theatres with free tickets given out at the Union Jack Club. My reward for organizing the coaches, collecting the money and making all the arrangements was a free ride on the coach.
I very rarely missed a weekend going home to my wife and son. If I was placed on weekend duty there would always be someone to take my place either in exchange for a small monitory reward, but more likely someone would do my duty on a “prid pro quo” basis. Each Monday morning when I arrived back at camp around 3.00AM I would always find my bed made up ready for me to crawl in and get a few hours’ sleep. No-one ever told me they had done this for me and it was one example of the fact that everyone looked out for everyone else and things were done without the expectation of being rewarded. Sometimes we had problems with the coach drivers. The company, Smiths of Reading, I found were very well organized but in retrospect I realize that to provide drivers who were willing to spend a weekend away from home staying either in Birmingham or Manchester was difficult. Some drivers were, shall we say, one or two cards short of a full deck. On one occasion with the Manchester coach, the driver had prepared for the drive back by consuming a little too much alcohol. The journey back began well enough but as the alcohol took effect the driving became more erratic. When a traffic island was ignored and the coach bumped straight over without deviating, the passengers quickly realized that they had a problem. As it was impossible to get to the driver in his little box cabin up front and relieve him of his duties, everyone moved to the back of the coach and awaited developments. As the journey took five hours everyone could do nothing except watch helplessly as other traffic and road signs, including traffic lights were ignored it became a long night. Miraculously the coach arrived at the camp, late of course, with its compliment of shaking passengers, without an accident. We didn’t see the driver again of course after I had made the phone call of complaint.
As I stated earlier in this essay I was 25 years of age when I began my National Service. So I was much older than most of the new recruits and was regarded by my younger colleagues as their advisor or mentor. One result of this can be typified by the following story. One of the nearest small towns near to Arborfield was Wokingham and in the town was a decent collection of Pubs that too many of my colleagues, offered an appeal. Better than “Paraffin Lills” the local cafe. In those days if I had more than a ½ pint of beer I would get a severe migraine, not knowing the cause at the time. ( I was allergic to milk and the alcohol was the trigger) I found it wise not even to have the ½ pint, so I stayed on base. Usually it was a bus ride into Wokingham and if the last bus back was missed, there was the long seven mile walk along pitch black country roads.
One evening the lads departed early and had not returned well after lights out so I knew they must have had a good time and missed the last bus. Around 2.00AM I was woken to be told that one of the lads had been walking back and had decided that the most important thing he wanted to do was to lie down and go to sleep. His friends had persuaded him several times to continue walking but finally he refused all kinds of encouragement and decided that he was going to crawl under a hedge and go to sleep. He did say to his friends before drifting off to sleep that the only person he would listen to and be persuaded to walk back to the camp was me. Consequently his friends had come, found my bed, woken me up and asked for help. After I hurriedly dressed I then joined the party to walk back to where they thought they had left him. Walking back along the dark country road gave me time to wonder if we would be able to find Peter before daylight. As I was the only person in the party who was sober, I had severe doubts that anyone would remember where they had left him, let alone which road. I reasoned that it would be doubtful we would be able to find him and we would have to spend hours, until daylight, trying to find him. Even now I cannot understand how I was taken straight to the location without a pause or hesitation. No-one could have done that when sober. Then I had to crawl under the hedge, wake him up, persuade him I was who I was, and gently get him to crawl out from underneath the hedge with me and begin walking him back to the camp. We made our way back into the camp through the back way over the hedge (usual unofficial method) surrounding the camp, avoiding the guards. Luckily it was the lads from our company on guard that night and we knew they wouldn’t be very vigilant that time and then getting everyone into their beds and settled down…
The camp, while I was there, was always nervous about potential raids from the IRA. A few months before I arrived at the camp, when again the headquarter company had provided the guards, members of the IRA had come to the camp, overpowered the guards, broken in to the Armoury and stolen rifles and Bren guns and ammunition.
One or two of the guards had been beaten badly although, as it was termed, injuries they were not “life threatening”. A little while later in the early hours, on a main road leading back towards London, two alert but unarmed policemen in a squad car saw a van being driven a little above the speed limit. The police car gave chase and soon they stopped the van in the traditional way by overtaking and waving the van down and thus instructing it to stop. The van stopped and the two policemen walked back from their car to the van. While one engaged the driver in a conversation the other walked to the back of the van and flashed his flashlight into the inside of the van through the rear windows to see the rifles and the Brens
My two years passed all too slowly although compared with many others I had a great deal with a very cushy occupation. The man who ran the drawing office was a civilian and my colleagues in the office were all of a like mind and used the system to advantage. The talent, represented by the Drawing Office staff was completely wasted. Important as the work was it could have been done by a much smaller staff of civilians who did not need the technical qualifications that we all possessed. This waste was typified by the fact that soon after I became a civilian again, I began working for a company on the design of a tank recovery vehicle for the Army through the Fighting Vehicle Research and Development Establishment (FVRDE). Why couldn’t this work have been done directly by the Army using the talent they had available? Still to this day I will never understand the army mentality and my experience typifies the incompetence and the wastefulness of the whole National Service system and the complete disregard to find ways of making the system more efficient.
With retrospect however, there was one part of my experience I am delighted not to have missed and that was the lasting friendships and the comradeship that was like no other I have experienced before or since. Both the National Service and the Regulars were united against a common enemy that was everything Army. The result was a togetherness that is I think, unique to servicemen everywhere.
My two years were a financial hardship, particularly for my wife as the monetary support from the Army was almost non-existent and without doubt our income was way below the poverty level. Without family support things would have been far more difficult than they were. At least we learned what it was like to live hand to mouth with next to nothing and without any luxuries whatsoever.
This left us both with a caution for spending, a frugality and guilt whenever we spend money on non-essentials. I left the Army with my cynical attitude fully in place and a lack of respect for the armed forces system with its inefficiencies and the incompetence of most of the officers. There is a saying that in the event of hostilities the Armed forces could not succeed in any venture without the recruitment of civilians to bring some sense into the system. No evidence has ever been presented to me that dispute that saying
What I did come away with was a lasting delight in the people I met and with whom I spent time during my National Service. Certain of these friendships have continued and I still correspond or visit with some of these long term friends. I wish I could contact others I knew and find out how the world has treated them over the years.
My National Service was, compared with many, a very easy existence. For instance I stayed in England, I was home most weekends and I worked in an office without ever getting my hands dirty except if I spilled some ink. Although my wife and I were forcibly made to live apart, the job I did was justifiably considered “cushy”. Although I took advantage where I could to use the education opportunities offered by R.E.M.E to further my career, I still consider that the two years wasted.
The site of the R.E.M.E. camp at Arborfield is now, I understand a housing estate although the old guard house from either Number 5 or the R.E.M.E. Depot has been retained as an R.E.M.E. museum. The parade ground where the RSM objected to the birds has been built on, and perhaps that is how it should be.
I intend to pay a visit before the time comes when I will be too old to hire a car during my visits to England and with a glass of wine in my hand, I intend to stand before the guard house museum and give thanks, and make a toast to all those “absent friends.”
The author, John E. Favill, now lives in Brookfield, Wisconsin, USA having emigrated in 1979