Chapter 28: Sandhurst Instructor, 1950
In due course orders came through to say that I was to become an Instructor at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, but I was going to lose my wartime temporary rank of Lt Colonel and be a Major once again. However I would not be required at Sandhurst until September. Meanwhile there was an odd job to be done at the War Office in the Signals Directorate. At the same time there was much to do in preparation for life in Camberley. Army living quarters were not yet provided on a generous scale and I would have to find my own accommodation. Selling one house, buying another and living 60 miles from my London job gave me a busy summer, but within a month or so of term starting we had our own house on the edge of the Sandhurst estate.
The spacious parkland that surrounds the buildings of the Staff College and Military Academy contains woodland and lakes as well as fine buildings, parade grounds and playing fields. It was a peaceful island beside a busy road to the west of England and the haphazard development of Camberley itself. On the Sandhurst estate extra buildings have constantly been fitted in without spoiling the gracious effect of the whole. I could cycle to work through the woods in a few minutes. There were no office hours in term time and events at all hours called for our presence. One officer summed up the situation in this way; ‘The only time I meet my wife in term time is in bed’. On the other hand holidays came at fixed times. There might be holiday activities with cadets; I took parties skiing, for example, but leave was liberal.
This would have been the fourth year of regular Army courses after ending the wartime routine. Nevertheless everything was spick-and-span with strong Brigade of Guards influence. Social change was already influencing the intakes which now attracted cadets from a wider span of schools which was all for the good. Circumstance also influenced the selection of staff. Wartime experience brought many young officers to high rank early and a convenient shelf was required for them in a place where they would be useful - and what better place than the Academy? The breadth of experience was wide, both in variety and geographically. Airborne, Armour, Special Air Service, Special Boat Service and behind-the-lines men of the SOE all had their place with us. Of those serving there with me were some 24 or so rose to Major General and half a dozen of these went through to full General, including one to Chief of the General Staff. There were others of high quality who thought it better to get out of the Army immediately as it would take many years to reach the rank of General. They judged that industry would provide greater rewards in quicker time and had the talent to prove their forecast right. A further sign of the times was that decorations for gallantry were legion, up to the level of the Victoria Cross worn by Pat Porteous. Humbling!
I took command of the Signals Wing, running communications instruction for all cadets. Today every youngster is familiar with electronic systems, but not so then. Our cadets might find themselves in operational zones soon after commissioning. The Berlin blockade was over and troops had left Palestine, but the Malayan Emergency, the Korean War and the threat of operations in Germany meant that many young officers might find themselves in action soon after they left us. They must be prepared. And then, before my first term was over, the odd job demon struck once more. I was told to report to the War Office for interview by a Colonel in a Training Branch.
A Whiteshod Winter Warfare Course was due to start in the New Year and the intended officer selected to run it had gone sick. Was I qualified to take on the task? Snow and mountains were familiar to me and I had some experience of warfare, albeit entirely in the Tropics. Would this be enough? Apparently it was and the unheard of took place. I was borrowed from Sandhurst.
First I would have to get to Austria. Military travel to mainland Europe relied on a system called Medloc. One reported to Harwich and caught a military ship to the Hook of Holland where a military train awaited. From amongst those travelling the furthest a senior officer was appointed Officer Commanding Train and a senior Warrant Officer became Train RSM. I had the first-named appointment on the return journey. I had to ‘sign for the train’. Halfway home a carriage was removed as an axle box was overheating. Thankfully I was not required to pay for the loss. Discharging our load in appropriate places as we went, we eventually reached the Villach/Klagenfurt area on Austria’s southern border with Slovenia. Those who had further to go to their military station in Trieste awaited the arrival of coaches from Italy that would take them there.
There can have been few nicer places than Austria to be stationed at this time. There were lakes and mountains giving skiing, sailing and mountaineering and I saw no signs of war damage. On instructions from Headquarters I set off by train for a small mountain village that had come into use as a Leave Centre. Access was primitive. Instead of a cable car there was a chain of large buckets, suitable for carrying up building material or bringing down timber. Installed in one of these with my baggage I was carried aloft and started preparations for receiving my students. The head Austrian ski instructor showed me the terrain. He seemed to be putting me to a severe test as he descended at speed and eventually when he stopped he found me beside him, rather to his surprise. He told me that he had been going ahead so that he might see how well I came down. First points to me. We got on well.
When my course arrived it was plain that the first thing needed was to train them in some fairly basic skiing techniques so that we could proceed safely in the mountains. After discussion with the Commandant and the head of Ski School it was decided that a fortnight should be devoted to this training in which I cold play no useful part. My time would be better spent in learning what I could about the progress in Army skiing in Austria and Germany and for this purpose I should go to Bad Gastein, a few stations away, where the Army Ski Championships were to be held. I was welcomed there and was invited to help, to race also if I wished, which I did with success. What I saw was most impressive. Most of those racing, particularly those from the ranks, could only have had two or three years’ experience, yet they were fit, brave and committed. In particular they were team members and determined not to let their team down. Of particular importance were the langlaufers, cross-country skiers with target shooting included in their circuit. With extremes of exertion in the skiing element, accurate shooting was very demanding. What better training could there be for a young soldier? A further development from this meeting was that I became a member of the Army Ski Association Committee.
Back with my trainees, the Ski School had done a good job. We could now learn about moving and living in snow-clad mountains, albeit at a slow pace. Some of this was new to me, in particular ‘snow holing’, which has some similarity to igloo building. Choosing a suitable site with deep-banked snow from which blocks could be cut for building was left to the experts. This was hot work on a sunny afternoon, two and four man accommodation holes were excavated with suitable ‘beds’ on which sleeping bags could be unrolled. The making of an entrance called for the use of snow blocks. Two essential points had to be remembered. If tightly sealed, oxygen starvation would be a danger. A vertical hole had to be made for fresh air. A ski stick, resting on its basket, would be inserted from above. This should be raised and shaken from time to time, particularly if it was snowing during the night. The second hazard was less obvious. Anyone leaving the snow hole at night might find it impossible to locate the entrance in the all white surroundings. Some marking was essential.
The students had planned an early morning start for a patrol to an alpine hut supposedly used by the enemy. This led to some minor frostbite problems, so we learned about that. Thereafter withdrawal took us over higher ground where the mist was thick. The danger is that the leader may inadvertently step over a precipice. A ski stick or glove should be thrown ahead of the party. If it lands on a solid surface it is safe to advance. I came across just these circumstances with a cadet party I took to the Cairngorms. We and the glove survived, but accidents certainly do happen in this area to the inexperienced.
We moved to Mallnitz and climbed the 11,000-foot Hochalmspitz in foul weather. Another lesson was learned. High on the mountain one of our group fell and lost his spectacles. Extreme short sight meant that he had to be guided slowly down the mountain, turn by turn. Arriving at our lodging we were introduced to a recovery brew called Eierbeer. Two raw eggs were added to a litre flagon of beer with brown sugar to taste. It was effective, however unattractive it may sound.
Back at base a sauna had been arranged in genuinely Nordic fashion. The hot steamy room was large and the cold plunge in an icy stream which flowed past the hut. This can be correctly described as an unforgettable experience. The course over, I was invited for a short stay with General Mike West in his fine house on the Worthersee so that he could be fully informed of my experiences.
Later in the year my Sandhurst job was changed and I found myself in Inkerman Company of Old College to serve one term in the Company before coming its commander. Sandhurst had three Colleges: Old, New and Victory, each with Company names from battles of the age they described. It was not until much later that I discovered a strong family connection with the Crimea. My mother had a great-uncle in Lt General Thomas de Courcy Hamilton VC. She may even have met him, as she was 15 when he died. Having already served in South Africa he was with the 68th, the Durham Light Infantry, in the Crimea. Having fought at Inkerman in November 1854, he then took part in the lengthy siege of Sebastopol. The Russian besiegers had been preparing for months for great effort. On 11 May 1855 they had captured a small battery on the front of the 68th. Hamilton called together a few men and with a sabre and bayonet charge drove the enemy away before the guns could be spiked. The VC award was not formalised until 1856, but a few earlier acts of gallantry were included.
Working in a Company meant that one had close contact with some 80 cadets and got to know them well. At their impressionable age many became friends for life. Twice each year a third of the group would be commissioned and new replacements would arrive. One Sunday there was a mysterious telephone call from my College Commander. ‘The Commandant wants to know what school you were at’. This enquiry, unusual then, would never be made today. What could it mean? We had heard that the young King Hussein of Jordan was to come to Sandhurst. Could it be that I was to join the shortlist from which selection of a Company Commander would be made? The next day we knew that King Hussein would come to Inkerman. No doubt considerations of Platoon Commander and Company Sergeant Major were included. We could produce a good team. In the Sandhurst tradition he would be addressed on parade as ‘Mister King Hussein, Sir’ and the great Academy Sergeant, John Lord, would explain to him ‘I call you Sir and you call me Sir’. King Hussein adopted this courtesy for the rest of his life, as I and other visitors were to discover.
Shortly after term started the young Harrovian arrived. He was self-assured, with a ready smile, and it was soon apparent that he intended to join wholeheartedly in everything that went on. This was a nice change from those few of our cadets who seemed to believe that Sandhurst did not apply to them. He mixed well with his contemporaries and showed constructive good humour in such ragging as went on. There was a memorable incident soon after he arrived. I stepped out of my office into the passage and found him waiting there. The conversation went like this: -
“I have learned that you have been recently blessed with the birth of a son.”
“Yes, our son Crispin is doing well.”
“I would like to give you this.”
A paper bag was produced from behind his back. It contained a silver porringer.
“Thank you very much, it is most generous. Academy rules are strict and I shall have to get permission to accept it.”
“It is not for you, it is for the baby.”
Plainly we had a great diplomat with us. The story was passed upwards and permission given.
In addition to the normal syllabus various visits were arranged for our Royal pupil. Professor Boswell was put in charge of the programme. He had been the Lecturer in General Education when I was at Woolwich and moved to Sandhurst when the older establishment closed. A brilliant lecturer himself he gave talks to newcomers on this important aspect of our work. The three of us saw The Times being produced and lunched with the Worshipful Company of Grocers. I attended the Motor Show with King Hussein and his London Ambassador and went to Goodwood for motor racing. As we stood together with the Duke of Richmond I called the Duke ‘Sir’, the Duke called the King ‘Sir’ and he correctly used the same appellation for me. We joined Raymond Baxter and listened to him broadcasting the race whilst Stirling Moss circled the track.
Before long it became apparent that he could not be spared from his country for more than one term, so he was promoted at intervals, first to intermediate and then to senior so that he could pass out as an officer at the December Sovereign’s Parade. He left with our very best wishes and a belief that we had all learned something from him about friendship.
Life was busy, but so was the social life and home activities. Our Visitors Book shows much activity and those of us with our own houses were busy with developments. If husbands were busy the wives, including those of Staff College, had their own programme. Fifty years later Sheelah and I still meet friends from that pram-pushing epoch. We would entertain our senior cadets to lunch in-groups. Sheelah maintains that they concealed themselves behind a hedge until zero hour and pressed the bell as it struck. She had to be ready. We found it better to find things to do rather than sitting round making conversation. This included washing up. King Hussein held a drying up cloth for the very first, and presumably for the last, time in his life.