Chapter 15: Mhow, 1942-1943
Mhow is a town of modest size in open undulating country with the advantage of an altitude of 3000 feet. It therefore provides a climate that is never oppressive, even if the annual arrival of the monsoon is welcomed with the usual pleasure of standing out in the first rains of the season. The countryside is open, neither forested nor lacking trees. All in all it was a good choice for training establishments. The British Signal Training Centre there, STC(B) for short, undertook the revision training of soldier tradesmen after their long sea voyage from England and also ran courses for new specialities or upgrading. The Officer Cadet Wing, which was part of it, received its input from Officer Cadet Training Centres in England as well as those at Dehra Dun, Bangalore and Mhow itself in India. These had given basic officer training for all future officers. The Cadets then moved on to specialist training appropriate to the branch of the Army that they intended to join. It was a great advantage for both nations that the British and Indian components of our courses should meet and make friends with each other during the four-month duration of their Signals training.
Mhow had gained in military status early in the 20th century as part of the reforms brought about by General Kitchener. With his wide experience of warfare in Egypt, the Sudan and Africa, he saw that the existing broad spread of military units over the country might usefully serve local troubles but had no merit for military action against an invader. He rightly foresaw that there were potential enemies in the north, Russia amongst them, who might take advantage of the situation if improvements were not made. He therefore set about grouping fighting units into Brigades and Divisions. Mhow became a Divisional Headquarters and formation training became part of the routine of life. The name Mhow was often associated with the expansion of its letters to Military Headquarters of War but I have never found confirmation of this. We in our turn inherited fine stone built barracks. Wartime expansion in numbers was catered for by new hutted accommodation and the taking over of civilian properties. Like other old stations Mhow had its Anglican Church and Cemetery and a Military Hospital.
As a new arrival my attention was focused on the job to be done and the people I was to work with. It is only in more recent years that I have come to wonder how it was that, as an officer of so little experience, I was given such important responsibilities and a relatively free hand in what I chose to do. For much of my time there were only two or three pre-war officers in the STC. There appear to have been two causes of this shortage of experience at this important centre of training. The obvious one resulted from the fact that operations in the Indian theatre had only started with the Japanese invasions six months before my arrival. Before that Indian Divisions, largely British-officered, had been moved to the Mediterranean area and had played and would continue to play an important part in that area including, in due course, the Italian campaign. At the same time rapid expansion of Signals requirements in the Far East soon absorbed the best of such quality as remained.
An indication of what was left is given by the nickname ‘Dodo’ carried by a Commandant who had left shortly before my arrival. It is recorded that he had little faith in that modern development called ‘wireless’. On visiting a cadet exercise his famous uttering to a cadet sitting by his set and plying a Morse key was “Not through - thought so - where’s your heliograph?”
The basic cause of the Signals officer shortage goes back many years. The Royal Engineers had been operating telegraph communications for some forty or more years before the outbreak of the Great War of 1914. The Royal Engineer Signal Service then developed and expanded immensely. Much of the new officer strength of the organisation had been drawn by secondment, as temporary borrowing was called, from Gunners, Cavalry, Infantry and Service Corps units. As the war progressed it was becoming clear that a separate Corps of Signals would soon be required. Such a Corps was created on 28 June 1920, though discussion still continued about what the requirement really was. Were Signals really necessary in peacetime? In the event of war, could the process of borrowing from other Arms carry much of the load? This had worked before, why not now? There followed a period of experiment that, in the opinion of General Nalder, our Corps historian, postponed the foundation of a satisfactory solution for the production of officers of the Corps until 1930, half a dozen years before I joined.
I do not know how the officer numbers required for the new Corps was assessed, but the target figure should have been higher. From my cadet course at Woolwich only seven vacancies were given to Signals out of a total of eighty-five students, the remainder going to Sappers and Gunners. For a new and fast expanding Corps with the added wartime demands for Signal Intelligence units the estimate, if such it was, was wildly wrong. Whatever the causes, officers of any experience were hard to come by and I had been given an important job to do. It was more important to look at our assets than our difficulties.
Somewhere in India, or perhaps back in England, there is an individual or organisation which should be permanently blessed for picking excellent officers to become our instructors at Mhow. On background experience and warm personality they could not be faulted. My job was to lead this team from civilian sources and help where I could from my limited operational experience. The team we formed of people in their mid-twenties related well to our cadets and formed a powerful engine room for success in circumstances which may not have looked promising.
Lionel Stones stood out on scholarship and versatility. One of our two PhDs, he went on to become Professor of Mediaeval History at Glasgow University. He could master a new subject overnight, as required, and made wise assessments of the students. John Everett became Chief Education Officer of Wiltshire. Two others of repute were Reg Welburn, a future Headmaster in Yorkshire, and Tug Wilson who developed a taste for overseas teaching in Malaya and Hong Kong. Later, when we expanded the scope of our courses, Reg took over the Advanced Line Courses and Tug its wireless equivalent. We had not yet learned to speak in terms of radio.
On the subject of experience, I believe that it was very difficult for some of my seniors, with no operational involvement, to relate to the requirements of the day. Scraps of information about what was being done in the training world in Britain or Egypt filtered through were looked upon as the new Gospel with items to be squeezed into our overcrowded syllabus. Relations with my Commandant, if not strained, required careful handling.
Memories of my own cadet days were of happy times allied to the need of meeting exacting standards in everything we did. At the age of eighteen almost everything has a funny side and laughter is ever near the surface. Our job with our cadets was to help them wherever we could but they on their side had to deserve helping. Many would soon be in operations and they must learn that the way we treated them should be the way they treated their soldiers. Friendship and mutual respect produce bonds that hold a successful unit together. Visiting outdoor exercises the Commandant believed in shouting when things were wrong. I did not. On one occasion he, a keen horseman, was seen to take his whip to a student, though never in my sight. All this was unfortunate. Some might say I was disloyal. Loyalty itself has to be earned and it does not override other principles.
We would receive a new course intake every month. Variation in size made planning and performance difficult. One course might bring in seventy-five newcomers who would have to be split into three classes and another might have a dozen or less which was an uneconomical number for us. It was our job to assess performance and some unfortunates had to be sent elsewhere. When a Chief Signal Officer took the trouble to write to us to say how pleased he was with the quality reaching him we accepted that we were doing about right.
The relationship between Officer Instructors and their cadets is an important one and forges links which endure for life. However this was my first real close contact with Indians of great variety, coming from many parts of the country. I was happy to find that they responded in humour and all other respects in the same way as their British counterparts. It was entirely up to us not to offend either group. On occasion the Indian required more patience. I remember on two occasions spending more than an hour with a young man who could not steel himself to jump over an assault course ditch full of barbed wire. We made endless jumps together and it was rewarding to us both when he conquered his fear and could do it alone.
One of the hazards of wartime change of unit was that there might not be a vacancy in the appropriate rank. Although the appointment I had taken up was undoubtedly important I had to revert to the rank of Captain for three months before becoming a Major once again.
Direct wartime commissioning from the ranks produced many officers who were very useful to us. I had known both our Quartermaster and Technical Maintenance Officer as Sergeants in Catterick. The latter, Dodger Green and his wife Emerald, were immensely kind to many of our officers in what was virtually a men-only community. Some new commissions from the ranks had great experience in India and were into double figures in years of Indian service before they eventually went home. Then there were others of this class, moving on to commission who came through on our courses. Most were helpful and one was outstanding. I had known Bob Edwards in Egypt as the Section Sergeant with 1st Royal Tanks. In their Regimental competition across a range of skills he was the outright winner. Arriving in Mhow as a cadet he was of immense help to his course. Carried off to hospital near its end for some major operation he was medically downgraded and became a most useful instructor.
Our workload varied but was never light. There was no break between courses and we had many administrative responsibilities too, such as censorship, postings, travel warrants and pay. On top of this we, the teachers, were required to study Urdu in our ‘spare time’ and pass a qualifying examination. At top pressure we recorded ninety-hour working weeks. In December I went down with malaria. Whether I had been carrying he seeds of this complaint since Burma I do not know.
Sick leave was one way of getting a break from routine, but leave without a wider interest than having a rest is a failure with me. It was our historian, Lionel Stones who steered me to Mandu, some thirty miles away, so there I was delivered with my bicycle, to be picked up a week later. I established myself in the Dak Bungalow, not so much tourist accommodation as basic housing and provision for Government officials visiting the area. Mandu, an extensive hilltop fortress of great antiquity, is situated on a landlocked island of a site that is linked to a northern plateau by a natural causeway. Its defensive potential was recognised in the ninth century when it acquired the title ‘City of Joy’. It became an Afghan kingdom in 1400 and the ensuing century was its golden age, with its independence ending fifty years later. It became a ghost town invaded more and more by jungle though the skeletons of many fine buildings survive to this day. Exploration was refreshing and time well spent.
Changes came in March when a new Commandant took over and an outstanding Indian officer arrived. Brijendra Singh Bhagat, Brij for short, arrived on completion of his Staff College course. Brij was very close to me in age and seniority. He had won the Sword of Honour at the Indian Military Academy and was a first class representative of his country in every way. It was important to have good Indian representation on our staff from every point of view and particularly for our many Indian cadets. As a further family distinction his younger brother, Prem, was to win the Victoria Cross as a Bombay Sapper and Miner in the Desert War. It was exciting for me to discover the immensely high quality of Indian regular officers who had chosen to come to Signals. He was not the only one from the very top.
It was decided that he should take over from me and I would take on new responsibilities at Mhow, but that I should take leave first. I had no objections. I had learned that teaching in such company, with lively students, could be most rewarding.