Chapter 29: War Office Outpost, 1955
My posting from Sandhurst in 1955 took me to an outpost of the War Office in Stanmore in the fringes of northwest London. Fortunately there were a number of people living in the Camberley area who were prepared to share with me the daily one hour drive each way so that it was not too burdensome, in spite of the intricate diversions caused by major roadworks. We could remain in the house we had bought. One of the team for much of the time was Colonel Arthur McVittie, for whom I would be working. In spite of our difference in seniority we had been on the same course at Quetta Staff College.
My new task was to control the postings of all Signals officers of the rank of major and below. The normal tour of a regular officer in any one job was two to three years. National Service officers were only available for less than half this time. Woven into the overall pattern came long courses with officers posted to training establishments. Unexpected retirements, sickness or death and the creation of new appointments or units produced a constant flow of wild cards. Promotions to Lieutenant Colonel would remove key officers from my control and leave further gaps to be filled. Added to these problems was an overall shortage of officers so that a percentage of vacancies had to be accepted.
The job made anyone in my chair a centre of attraction. The customers included, first of all, the officers I was posting. They could produce personal or family problems, preferences for particular theatres or career advice. The office of the Signal Officer in Chief would issue directions for me to follow and Chief Signal Officers, Commandants of Schools and Regimental commanders would present me with their worries to see what help I could give. Nevertheless, as a people job, this was full of human interest. Beyond that, I had been away from British service within my Corps for fourteen years. I now got to know and be known by as wide a span of our officers as anyone could hope to achieve.
The first surprise of the fortnight set aside for taking over was that Michael Fletcher, my predecessor had no desk, or rather he stood at the sort of desk I imagine that accountants used when working on heavy ledgers. The whole briefing was carried out standing up. He explained that when he had taken over he had two staff Captains to help with the work. One of them had been posted away six months ago and the other was on the point of leaving also without replacement. My sole assistant would be an Executive Officer of the Civil Service, Bill Wicks. Amongst other introductions I met members of the Military Secretaries Branch with whom I would be working.
I had not been long in post when General Sir Cameron Nicholson, the Adjutant General, entered my office. He was personally taking the trouble to visit separately all the majors carrying out officer postings for the different branches of the Army. His message was simple and long overdue. He said that it was absurd that nearly ten years after the end of the war we were only giving officers two months warning of an impending posting. In order to give individuals and their families reasonable time for planning we should move quickly to a six months warning system. This meant a sudden compression of an extra four months work into our timetable. Whatever the message, it was most impressive to find a member of the Army Board carrying this message personally to young majors.
Bill Wicks, my E.O. was a jewel. He had a deep knowledge of all aspects of the ‘system’, plenty of practical common sense and a great sense of humour. We set to with a will and became an excellent team.
The first thing for me to do was to get the hang of the sources of information on which decisions could be based. There were establishment tables, and an array of volumes containing a slip for each officer giving basic data of all kinds including current unit, date of appointment and any special qualifications. Then there was a hardback folder for each officer of assessments by Commanding Officers in annual confidential reports. The Military Secretaries Branch maintained each officer’s report records and the so-called Personnel Branches, such as mine, could draw them out when selections had to be made and postings considered.
Quite rightly there were stringent rules for safeguarding information in these folders, but I and those like me had to be able to respond with quick solutions to varied problems and we were forbidden to retain any notes from reports even though they would improve selection procedures. Similarly, if one needed a specialist, an Arabic speaker, a parachutist or any of a dozen others, one would have to wade hopefully through several hundreds of record slips to identify possible qualifiers.
It seemed to me, and certainly to those I served, that quick response was an important part of my job. I therefore applied with success for a change of this War Office rule in so far as Personnel Branches were concerned and I employed an officer between postings to check every officers’ record slip and place an appropriate coloured marker indicating special skills on those slips deserving one. Search for a particular skill could then be limited to those slips with the right colour tab on them. Updating was easily done when reports passed through the office. If only we could have had computers!
After reaching the goal of a minimum of six months warning the pressure of our everyday work lessened. There was time to consider the general philosophy of postings that I had never considered before. First came the interests of the Army that included the development of individuals in a wide range of skills. Second came the interests of the different branches of the Army. Each wants a share of the important jobs in the service. Thereafter come the interests of the individual that, without guidance, may go no further than choosing a nice place to go to when it is time to move. Individuals needed educating on how to build a career. It seemed to me that in Signals we were innocents surrounded by experts in the older tribes. We needed to become more expert within ourselves and in our relationship with the Military Secretaries Branches.
From these thoughts, my growing experience and the variety of questions I was constantly asked I drew conclusions. There would be value in planning tours of units to pass on information on the system in operation; the way we handled requests; how we hoped to achieve fairness between individuals and in career management. In the end I was able to carry out this plan for the United Kingdom, Germany, Cyprus, Libya, the Canal Zone of Egypt and Jordan. For me this turned out to be an important education on the status within the Corps as well as giving an understanding of the conditions and activities in each theatre.
When I visited units in Germany war damage was still much in evidence. Many roads were in poor condition. Because of inadequate drainage severe frosts had thrown up frost ‘boils’, inches high, which had to be watched for and negotiated with care. My locally-employed driver explained to me that in Germany driving was war. The discipline and rigid rules that were to come were not yet in evidence. In Cyprus it was the Makarios age of internal Greek/Turkish trouble. Dinner in a restaurant in Limasol was called off half eaten when shots and explosions were heard in the neighbourhood. In the Canal Zone there was excellent sailing, but the wider interests of Egypt opened to me by desert explorer Ralph Bagnold were less in evidence, perhaps through no fault of those serving there. In the ten-year-old Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan I was lucky enough to have a free Sunday. I was provided with a Christian Sergeant of Police as guide and taken to Jerusalem and Bethlehem from Amman. At this time before the later wars the Allenby Bridge over the river Jordan was open and there was free access between Jordan and Israel.
One of the supposed advantages of my appointment was that at its end I could choose my own posting. One of my predecessors went to Canada. For myself I considered it important to go to an active major unit preferably in Germany. In twenty years service I had great variety of employment but all too little in the bread-and-butter work of an active Signals Regiment. My posting was suitably fixed to meet my needs and I set off for Zermatt to help run skiing there for the Ski Club of Great Britain.