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Alan Booth National Service Green Howards

4 May

I am sure you the reader will enjoy this very interesting story by Alan Booth, which he sent to me awhile back

Hello Alan, It’s a funny thing about memory. As I get older I have vivid memories from years ago; happenings, places, even the expression on someone’s face at the time of a particular event. But nowadays I enter a room to do something, I get there and my mind is a complete blank. I’ve no idea what I set out to do. Yet things long past are as clear in my mind as if they had happened yesterday. My memories of the 728 days of National Service are just like that, a bit patchy now after 50 years but some events and people I remember very clearly.
• I was called up in September 1957 and ordered to report to the Regimental Depot of the Green Howards at Richmond North Yorkshire. Green Howards! I’d never heard of them; sounded a bit like Robin Hood’s merry men. Not far from the truth as there were a few bandits as I would soon find out. One of my first shocks was to find out that the battalion was serving in Hong Kong and after ten weeks basic training we would be shipped out there on the first available troopship. My two elder brothers had both been Brylcream Boys and had been able to get home most weekends and I assumed that I would have a similar experience. Especially as there was a particular young lady who’s company was a much more attractive proposition than anything that the army was promising.
• I will miss out the delights of the ten weeks square-bashing which I’m sure are well documented elsewhere. However after passing out of training we had Christmas leave at home before suffering continuation training until HMS Nevassa was due to sail at the end of January. My father, in whose business I had worked before call up, was afraid of being “left out on a limb”, so he applied for me to have a compassionate posting within the UK. As a result I was taken of the draft until the matter could be considered. Eventually the request was refused but by that time I had found a niche on the MT section as a driver.
• Life on the depot permanent staff wasn’t too bad. In addition to our menial tasks we were also required for ceremonial duties both within the barracks and outside and also to perform in field exercises, so we had to be on the ball as soldiers and infantrymen. We did not need to be harried by the junior NCOs as we knew that unless the barrack rooms and our kit was up to scratch there would be no weekend leave and any misbehaving would put the offender on the next slow boat to China.
• Apart from the Drill Instructors, (we avoided contact with them like the plague) and a few particular pests on the provost staff, the NCOs of the permanent staff were a bunch of harmless old chaps serving their time out waiting for their pensions. Our corporal on the MT section was one of these. He was a scruffy individual. To say that his bark was worse than his bite, would be a gross overstatement. He had more of a whimper than a bark; and you wouldn’t want to be bitten by him. We used to say that he only needed one white tooth to complete his snooker set. However he could be devious.
• In order to expedite my departure at every opportunity from the prison like establishment to which we were confined, I bought a motorbike. Not one of the screaming beasts that can be seen and heard on the roads today, but an Ambassador 197cc two stroke. Obviously I had a full licence for a car so I had to have L-Plates on the bike, but this wasn’t a great problem. In addition to the three trucks and a Land Rover, which we had on the MT section, there was also an ancient motorcycle. A 500cc side valve BSA, girder forks and with no rear springing what so ever; a real boneshaker.
• No one rode it; we just brought it out of the shed every month to be cleaned for inspection before putting it away again. I suppose that I took it for a spin around the barracks but nothing else. On one occasion when the old relic came out into the light of day, I asked the MT corporal if I could have an army motorbike test. He immediately disappeared into the Quartermaster’s office and reappeared a few minutes later saying that I should report to the REME Light Aid workshops in Catterick Camp, where we got our repairs done, and report to the sergeant there for a test that very afternoon.
• So I appeared at the appointed hour with my L-Plates on the flying bedstead. First of all, the sergeant asked who was with me. It transpired that army regulations required all learners, even on motorbikes, to be supervised. After he had calmed down from his little tantrum, he gave me some money and waved a tin of tobacco under my nose and told me to ride to the shops at the camp centre and fetch for him two ounces of Golden Virgin. Being a non-smoker I didn’t know any better, so I carried out his instructions to the letter asking the very attractive teenage girl behind the counter for the required item. Quick as a flash like a genie out of a bottle, an older man appeared, slapped a tin of tobacco onto the counter and snarled, “You mean GOLDEN VIRGINIA”. Hear endeth the second lesson of the afternoon.
• I returned to the workshops and the sergeant mounted his AJS 350cc, a very modern bike compared with the old Beesa, and told me a route to follow and he rode behind on the AJS. Our first stop was at his married quarters where we had a cup of tea before returning to the starting point by another route. He threw two dustbin lids onto the ground and told me to ride in a figure of eight around them. This would have been an easy manoeuvre on my machine but not on the old wreck that I was presently riding. However I managed without putting a foot down. “OK you’ll do” he said “If they want confirmation they can phone me”.
• When I returned to Richmond and told the news to our leader he strutted off to boast of his achievement to the QM. Returning very shortly with a pink slip of paper certifying my competence to ride a motorcycle, signed by the Major .So now we knew the system. My buddy, who had better remain incognito, he was thought to be a bit of a Jack the Lad, so I’ll refer to him as Jack. He decided that even though he had a car, a Jowett Bradford, he may as well pass an army bike test, just in case.
• When there was nothing to do, which was most of the time, we were allowed a sports afternoon on Wednesday. But being such magnanimous soldiers we ceded this opportunity to skive, in order to further Jack’s education and thereby enhance the efficiency of the unit. So we put L-Plates on the army bike, wrote “Driver Training – Caterick and District” on the Work Ticket and sent our beloved corporal to get an authorised signature. Then off we would go with me on the pillion as supervisor.
• We very soon got fed up with cruising round the garrison. So we decided that Catterick and district must surely extend to Jack’s home, which was in a hamlet near to Thirsk. After all it was only thirty miles, so off we went by a circuitous route to avoid any encounters with authority. I can remember clearly the cottage where Jack lived; there was a gorgeous sunny vegetable garden at the rear, which was obviously tendered with care. Jack’s mum always gave us a civilised afternoon tea. I remember the little lace dust cover weighted with beads at the corners, with which the milk jug was covered. On the return journey we always disconnected the speedometer cable so that the recorded mileage would have the appearance of being reasonable. A couple of pints of firewater from each of the trucks would easily balance the books.
• This went on for a few weeks until on one jaunt Jack asked why we always went to his home, why not mine. Arm-twisting was not required, I agreed straight away without giving a thought to the logistics. Well, thirty miles off route why not sixty. Something like being hung for a sheep as a lamb now springs to mind. So we headed south on a lovely sunny afternoon.
• The journey home was unremarkable, it was my regular route and I knew every bump in the road, there were many and we felt everyone. I don’t know what time we arrived but I met my betrothed from the BBA offices where she worked and rode her home on the pillion. I suppose that was the nearest to a cuddle that we got on that occasion. I wonder now what Jack thought of Spen Valley with its smoke blackened buildings and our unmade street complete with air raid shelter and the often pungent odours of the nearby soap works. It made a stark contrast to his idyllic rural environment.
• As we left, I remember my fiancée walking to the F Bus stop and waving to us as we chugged of into the sunset. We went by way of Leeds, Harrogate and Ripon and we stopped on the approach to Baldersby roundabout just before the A1 to ease our cramped limbs. It was fully dark now and being clad in only denims we were feeling the cold. We considered the time and as we needed to be back inside the barracks before the guard closed the gates at 2200 hours, we decided that we had better press on. We had disconnected the speedo of course there for we didn’t know how fast or how slow we were moving. I was elected to go on the front to try to make better progress. I think Jack just wanted a windbreak. We pushed ahead along the dual carriageway, through Leeming Bar, no diversions now; we had to go for it.
• I remember clearly passing the RAF Regiment depot at Catterick Aerodrome and seeing the two Service Policemen on duty at the gate. Their heads turned, like a pair of owls, as they watched our progress passing their station. There was no shout for us to stop, but there didn’t need to be, because round the bend entering Catterick Village the engine coughed, spluttered and died. There was no need to look into the tank, because we knew we were out of juice. I am in no doubt that words of Anglo-Saxon origin would have passed between us. The best translation would be “Alas we are undone”. We knew there was a filling station at the other end of the village, so we pushed the now useless heap of junk the length of the village. We were warm enough by the time we reached the garage forecourt, only to find the garage shut.
• We could see a light shining inside the workshop and by pressing our noses to the frosted glass of the sliding door we could discern a silhouette in the cubbyhole that served as an office. We knocked gently on the doors but got no response, so we knocked louder and progressively louder until we were positively banging on the doors. At last there was movement and we heard footsteps approaching. The doors opened slightly and an unfriendly male voice shouted, “Hang on can’t you, I’m on the phone”. He then disappeared again.
• We waited what seemed like ages, looking anxiously at our watches. Eventually we heard a “ping” from the extension bell as the telephone was replaced on the receiver. The proprietor re-emerged and demanded an explanation. I let Jack do the talking; he was good at that. I don’t know what cock and bull story he came up with but the kind gentleman grudgingly agreed to sell us some petrol. He went back into the garage to switch on the power and get the keys. Upon his return he unlocked the pump and looked at each of us in turn expectantly. Neither of us was forthcoming. As this was Wednesday and Thursday was payday finances were at the lowest ebb. He stood and waited while we had a conference and pooled our resources. We had just enough to buy one gallon, probably about three shillings and six pence. Our appointed fuel supplier was not amused.
• We would have had to tickle the carburettor to clear the air locks but when we gave her a kick the old girl burst into life. We were mobile again but now time was of the essence, in fact we were desperate. Throwing caution to the wind we set off, throttle wide open passing Catterick Race Course over the bridge turning left through Brompton on Swale, passed Easby Abbey and into Richmond. Military vehicles were forbidden to use Gallowgate so we made the usual detour via Gilling Road and along the back of the barracks. Riding carefully now trying to keep the exhaust note as low as possible. This was all to no avail, we could hear the bugler sounding the Last Post the gates would be locked. We stopped to confer, should we hide the bike on the football field opposite and sneak in the back way, or hope that we could bluff our way in. Passing a friendly guard sergeant? We rode to the corner of the castle-like edifice to see how the land lay. To our utter amazement, there in front of the gate stood an enormous low loader truck on the back of which, under a tarpaulin, was the unmistakable shape of a Centurion Tank.
• There was a heated discussion going on outside the gate between the driver, an NCO of the guard and the duty regimental policeman. There was a flap on!
• I kept a low profile with the bike behind the Tank Transporter while Jack went forward on foot to do a recce. He came back and eagerly grabbed the Work Ticket folder and telling me to wait and ran off again. I don’t know how he did it or why there were no questions as to why we were there, but he returned with the Work Ticket signed by the Orderly Officer authorising us to escort the load to the Fifth Tank Regiment at Cambrai Lines in Catterick.
• I don’t know how we got the huge vehicle turned round but we must have done as we went willingly about our appointed task. Our only concern now was the fuel situation; we didn’t want to run dry again. In order to economise we took our charge to the Camp Centre roundabout in Catterick, pointed him in the right direction and left him to it. Then we coasted back down Hipswell Bank into Richmond. We had no fears now about getting into camp we were legitimate. We could ring the bell and expect praise for a job well done.
• Before we turned in we made the necessary comfort stop at the ablutions and I remember clearly, as we powdered our noses, Jack looked sideways at me across the porcelain with a dead pan expression on his face and said, “I hope that you realise that we have just done an army job using our own petrol”.
• Everything was normal next day and for the following week or more, until one day when I was Bulling my Bedford (Reg. 73RA15). The pest, our corporal, came out of the QM’s office and shouted “You driver – Quartermaster’s office – Now” I wasn’t concerned as he liked to play the drama queen. I went into the office and the Q-Bloke indicated with an inclination of his head that I should enter into the inner sanctum. I went in and stood loosely to attention. The boss didn’t like a lot of foot stamping in the office; his instructions were only one salute per day.
• When he became aware of my presence he put down his pen and drew a document from a tray on his desk. Even upside down I could recognise my own handwriting; it was the Work Ticket for the motorbike. Now I felt concerned. This wasn’t a man to whom you could feed a load of moonshine. He sat there with the damning evidence in his hand and I stood feeling naked beneath the sword of Damocles. I’d nowhere to hide when the fertilizer hit the fan.
• “All this driver training” he began.
• There was a pregnant pause; I waited wondering if I should say something. He looked up at me eyeball to eyeball.
• “Well” he continued, “How is he doing”?
• I hoped that he didn’t see the relief that I felt as I stammered, “Very well Sir, I think he’s ready for a test”.
• His eyebrows raised; “Test”! He retorted “He should be ready for the Manx Grand Prix by this time”. Another pause then, “Is he a safe rider”?
• “Oh yes Sir “I said “I would go anywhere with him”. I didn’t say I already had.
• Yet another pause then “Send him in “.
• I was glad to get out of there. Outside I met Jack coming in the other direction. Obviously he had also been summoned.
• “What did he want”? He asked. “You”! Was my monosyllabic reply.
• He sauntered into the office and returned a few moments later with a big broad grin on his face and a pink slip of paper in his hand. It was his certificate of competence to ride a motorcycle.
Memorable days

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