THIS SHORT STORY WAS WRITTEN BY MY BROTHER FRANK
F.C PARKINSON NATIONAL SERVICE 1955-57
In life we are products of the time, we are doctored, honed and pruned to the period of life into which we are born and educated into that society. In my time national service was compulsory and having no trade I found myself drafted at eighteen. . After the usual medical and interview at Preston, I waited for my letter. Two weeks later it arrived requesting me to travel to Fleet in Hampshire, the training camp of the Royal Army Medical Corps, known in the army as RAMC. This personally would have been my last choice, complaining was a waste of time, I did my duty and went.
Being away and alone for the first time was difficult to say the least. The training and discipline especially the first two weeks was exceedingly harsh. My group was 55.08 which means 1955 draft 8,16 weeks into the year. The very first week of training my home side, Barrow-in-Furness rugby league team had reached Wembley. I had been to every round previous home and away. They won the cup that year, and I missed it. The way rugby league has developed there’s little chance of a repeat performance. During the next ten weeks we learned all about first aid, how to fire a rifle, plenty of drill and PT. I was as fit as a fiddle and did a road mile in less than five minutes.
One incident that sticks in my mind was the great bucket mystery. Each occupant of the barracks teams up with another and then allotted a task. I was with Joe; I have forgotten his real name. We had to polish the aluminum bucket and when my eyes saw it, shining and gleaming, I turned to Joe. “That bucket doesn’t need cleaning” I said. Joe agreed, we just forgot about it. Next morning the barrack room door burst open. In came our barrack room corporal. “Who’s on the bucket he snarled?” Joe unfortunately, was at the end of the barrack near the door that the corporal had entered. I was at the top end of the barrack and moved forward from my bed .He got the biggest verbal rollicking I’ve ever heard. He was called every name under the son and reduced in height about a foot. I felt sorry for him. The corporal completely ignored me, which upset Joe. I just
managed to keep a straight face, as Joe charged towards me. It was my time to take the flack.
Finally basic training was over and we were given leave for the first time. We had three choices, home posting one week leave, Middle East two weeks leave, or Far East three weeks leave. I fancied going to Hong Kong or Singapore, unfortunately there were no postings for our draft. I chose the Middle East. The only leave I would have in my two years army service.
After spending my fortnight embarkation leave at home. I spent a most uncomfortable night in the bowels of Googe Street station; this is the army departure point in London. We flew out the next day from Stanstead, landing in Egypt. The next two weeks we spent acclimatizing and lectures on the do’s and don’ts of the area .I spent a further two more weeks at the Fayid Military hospital.
I was then moved with the rest of the draft into Two Field Ambulance. This was to make up the strength of their company, who was moving to Cyprus. This camp had a reputation for toughness. They had held their own in the tough camps scattered around the Suez and against the various regiments that served there. The very first night of our arrival we were placed on guard duty. Being desert camp, strange noises echoed across the sand. “What’s that?” I said. The Corporal grinned and shined his torch onto a sand dune, which was covered with wild dogs. A lad named Smith; I think his first name was Geoff .He had the dubious stag into the desert. He looked scared has he disappeared into the darkness. Someone informed us the dogs came into the camp looking for food. I did not see one on my stag. Smith did survive, and coming from a rugby town we became good friends. Except for a few months we were posted mainly together throughout our time in Cyprus.
The Advance party left for Cyprus and soon we were to follow. Not for us the comfort of coaches. We travelled in two-ton trucks, hot and sweaty along the Suez Canal, finally reaching our destination Port Said. We then sailed for Cyprus in a flat bottom boat, much like a ferryboat. This was a short crossing and I was seasick once.
After a bumpy night ride we arrived at our temporary camp. Tired and worn we were allotted tents and allowed a night sleep. In contrast to Egypt, Cyprus is a beautiful island, with greenery, mountains and terrain, similar to the Lake District. The camp itself was outside Limmasol near a Smedley Factory. Two field Ambulance was a self-supporting unit with about two hundred soldiers, including drivers, cooks, and mechanics drawn from the different regiments.
The advance party had done what was expected of them and laid out the necessary tents, cooking equipment etc. With no surrounding fences double guards was the order of the day. This created quite a strain on the personnel available for guard duty. It worked out every other night on duty. Two hours on stag, four hours off. That’s if you could sleep in between. In addition to this everyone worked in the daytime. Digging latrines, putting up the barb wire perimeter, as well as kitchen fatigues. Clerks, Storemen, Regimental police, etc. were excused guard duties. I did the routine for three months. The food was the worst I’ve experienced in my army days. Small amounts, consisting mainly of tomatoes from the nearby Smedley factory, Pom potatoes, which are powdered potatoes and Spam like luncheon meat. This was followed by a piece of watermelon or grapes. These were served in our mess tins. We had to clean them out with first, the local clay like soil, sometimes luke warm water, then disinfectant. A few times whilst waiting for meal times I was so tired I fell asleep mess tins in hand. Other occasions I awoke late at night cold and hungry.
At weekends if not on duty, a truck took us to a splendid beach at Limmasol, sometimes also into the town. The drinks were cheap, at the time, the favourite being rum and coke,
The local inhabitants showed hostility the very first night. Some troops from another regiment at Limmasol were badly beaten up. It was not long after the first bomb was thrown; EOKA had raised its ugly head. After this all personnel were confined to camp. When leaving any camp on the island guns were carried and active service had begun. The killings in Cyprus started shortly after this time, so frequent was this that in Nicosia the capital they called one street murder mile. More servicemen were killed in Cyprus than the Afghanistan and Iraq war put together.
One night returning from a show at a RAF camp, a bomb was thrown into the back of a lorry, driving behind the one I was travelling in. This lorry came speeding past us as panic set in. Our two escorts opened fire with their sten guns firing blindly into darkness. We raced back to our own camp and the truck in front did not stop, crashing through the camp barrier.
Guard duty effected soldiers in different ways. Most personnel acted as if a duty, others were literally scared. One private from Dagenham, fired a round of ammunition and was placed on a charge, others were caught sleeping. The punishment varied, mostly cookhouse duties at night, as we were already confined to camp. I was charged once in that camp with not shaving by a Sergeant Major who always took a delight in catching me out.
My first three months in Cyprus were the worst possible. The next three were the best. Our main camp was being prepared at a place located as four-mile point Farmagusta. I was picked to go with the advance party. We left behind small tents with no electric lights, cramp conditions large bucket to do our visit to he lavatory covered by a sack screened around it. Our new camp was like Shangri-La compared with our old one. Catering Corps cooks, in a proper kitchen and mess hall prepared the food, with a varied menu and proper plates. We had decent toilets, showers, better accommodation in large spacious tents. Above all we had a good sergeant leading us and the work was interesting. Battle-Cry was the Sergeants nickname and he had fought throughout the Second World War .He taught us how to put up the large Marquees which were needed whilst the small hospital was completed.
All good things come to a end. The rest of the camp from Limmasol joined us as we completed our work. Back to guard duties, daily parades, kit inspection every day most very needlessly
In the summer time we worked early morning concluding at 2 PM, the rest of the day was ours. le
Guarding the camp was on a Rota system we did the night time guards and the regimental police doing the daytime duties. This was quite suitable because it gave us a little more spare time. We played rugby, football and running around within the perimeter of the camp, which was quite limited.
Physical Training was taken very early morning with a roll call, which everyone had to attend. I along with others had worked out a method of avoiding this. Roll call was taken on the parade ground which also doubled up as a car park for the REME trucks. After roll call the PT Instructor gave the command to follow him in a communal jog around the camp. The trick was to work your way to the end of the column, then as you passed the Lorries duck behind them and make your way back to the tent area and an early breakfast.
I soon realized in the army it was up to the individual to make life as easy as possible without to many risks to oneself. Also to take any punishment, you have deserved, and not blaming or involving any other personnel when in trouble. The morning parade was held after breakfast each week. A different sergeant took the parade each week and would give the commands. This then was preceded with an officer giving a quick inspection. After this procedure the sergeant gave the command, fall out the employed. Those personnel who had regular employment would salute turn and fall out. These were clerks, armourers and store men; etc. The rest of the personnel would then be allocated cookhouse fatigues and all other task that required attention. The simple trick I latched onto depending on the sergeant,was to fall out with the employed and go back to my tent for the rest of the day.
Eventually I was allocated a night duty job as the medic on ambulance night duty that excused me guard duty. At a later date I gained a job in the office with the help of a chap called Webb from Tunbridge Wells. I think his first name was Mike. Alas the job didn’t last long. I left the CO’s stove on all night and he was not pleased. What the hell he needed a stove for in that heat is anyone’s guess. My old friend the Sergeant Major took full advantage of the situation and had me posted to the Leicesters. In a town near to Farmagusta I had less than six months to go.
I had spent a short time on the wards of Nicosia hospital. The Leicesters had suffered their fair share of injuries and deaths. One of their regiment a driver had near fatal injuries. It was a miracle he was still alive and one orderly had to stay with him at all times. Miraculously he recovered and evacuated back to England.
While still at 4 Mile Point, I spent some time talking about boxing to a chap who’s famous moment of glory was going the distance in an amateur bout with Henry Cooper. Frank from Dagenham, he was the chap I mentioned earlier who had fired his rifle on guard and received a charge. He was also the hard man of the camp, but I got on OK with him. There was a rumour that Frank had been on escort duty to Nicosia Hospital delivering a patient. He was entitled to a meal but went after the allotted time. Frank demanded a meal and the cook in charged refused him. Threats were exchanged and a fight developed which if the story was true the cook held more than his own.
Talking about cooks I would like to mention one, a chap from the catering corps named O`Connor from Liverpool, before his Sergeant arrived at the kitchen he would deliver early morning cups of tea, a true comrade. The Sergeant over the cooks was quite a character his nickname was Squeegee. He got his name because every two hours he would stop all work and swill down the whole cookhouse. He was the scourge of the cooks and those doing fatigues at the time. I can picture him now a ladle in one hand and a squeegee in the other. I am grateful for one thing though. I can peel a spud with a knife in seconds. It never leaves you.
I was not long down at the Leicester camp when I was in trouble again. I had blankoed my belt in the sink of the ambulance room. The sergeant in charge found out, he marched me all over the camp to different officers. They finally found a solution, post me to another outpost in the town itself .At least I was nearing the boat home. With seven weeks to go I returned to my old camp with Two Field Ambulance. Most of the draft that I had travelled to Cyprus with was scattered around the island at various companies’ ambulance rooms. My friend the Sergeant major had some news for me. He told me I had been selected to go back to the UK early. They needed a the first aid man on board one of the flat bottom ferry like boats returning to the U.K. What Sergeant majors say you always agree with but this time I said to him you are depriving me of going back with the draft I came out with and that is what I want to do. He just looked at me coldly and never answered.
When it was time to leave, my trusty pal Smudgy Smith he came down to say goodbye.
I left four-mile point with the postman and we made our way to Famagusta harbour. One more twist in the tale was to happen to me. On board I was allotted a great cabin to myself over looking the deck area. I had met the Purser who seemed a decent chap he showed me the first aid room and I was looking forward to sailing. The Suez Canal fiasco had finished and the troops going back home, were reservists who had not taken part. There were twenty in all and they had been in Cyprus for just a few months. The crew on the ship apart from the officers were Chinese. Unlucky for me just has we were ready to sail; the Purser came to my cabin apologised and said sorry old chap you’ll have to move. An officer had come aboard and mine being the only cabin available an officer took preference.
I spent the rest of six weeks in the hold with the rest of the troops, to cap it of I had to share in the fatigues.
The only incident apart from a cut head to deal with was one of the Chinese crewmen became seriously ill with a high fever. The Purser asked me if I could do anything for him. I hadn’t a clue and handed the Purser some stomach tablets I had found and I gave him a dose of Quinine. What will we do I asked if he doesn’t recover. We’ll throw him overboard was the reply. He seemed in a high fever when we left him and retired for the night. Next morning worried about the patient Wong, I went to the sick room. Wong was nowhere to be seen; I went on deck and spotted the Purser talking to the Bosun who was one of the largest Chinese I had ever seen.
I interrupted their conversation, “Where’s Wong Ming?” I nervously asked. The Purser and the Bosun both smiled. “He’s over there” they laughingly replied. I turned around and saw Wong grinning at me and waving before returning to scrubbing the deck. The Purser and I had cured him somehow, If only I could remember the recipe. I am sure it must have been the throwing overboard recipe?
Just before we sailed into Tilbury a soldier cut his head, after I had finished bandaging him, he looked like a head chef. Leaving my last patient I prepared to disembark it had just taken three weeks. I said my good-byes and caught the train to Fleet the RAMC depot. I was released early and nobody from my draft was there. I made my way to Euston station and home. It was a great feeling. Until this very day I’ve only met one person who served in Cyprus.
Some years ago an old friend named Brian Hubbard from the Cyprus days looked me up while visiting Barrow. Brian came from Norfolk. I returned the compliment when I was visiting Norfolk with my wife. Sadly Brian has died since. He’s the only one I have seen since leaving national service in1957. It was good to see my parents, brother and sister again. We all came from a happy home life with parents always doing the best they could for us, sometimes in extreme hard circumstances. My generation and age group developed from a tougher breed. No more physically tougher than today, but mentally tough. We evolved from the back streets, tin baths, coal fires, cold water, and outside toilets. We were used to harsh conditions. When we went to do our national service some of the conditions were similar to what we left in Civvy Street. I feel privileged to be born in that time period and the time since and the time to come. Many changes have evolved. My time in National service I look back with mixed emotions, on balance it did me no harm.