Chapter 30: Odd Job Year, 1957
The best laid plans… I returned to Stanmore to find that my relief had been posted elsewhere to meet an emergency. I would have to find someone else and face delay; then would follow our first family move. Crispin, Antonia and Hugo would take their first trip abroad with us. We moved to Osnabrück, in Germany, where an independent Brigade was being formed and the Signal Squadron would be my command. Once again service in a Regiment was denied me. On the bright side, there was a good quarter available and perks were numerous. The pound bought plenty of Marks and we were provided with Staff, two women to work in the house and a boilerman to look after the heating.
There were also snags. There was an Armoured Brigade at Sennelager some 70 miles away that was being disbanded. I was to take over the Signal Squadron, hand in equipment not appropriate for my command and move stores, equipment and men to Osnabrück. This took some weeks. Once there active training took place and I was most grateful to an excellent operator Corporal, as I was in Burma, for producing order out of chaos on the Brigade net as only a good leader of his trade could achieve. I had but one officer, Mike Greaves, with a National Service commission, who helped greatly in achieving parade ground smartness. High standards were sought in all types of inspection. I still believe that such matters are important if soldiers are to begin to take pride in their work. Mike, I am glad to say, converted to a Regular Commission.
National Service produced some pleasant surprises. The driver of my Volkswagen turned out to be expert on bird life and his instruction was valuable. Two others on a trip turned out to be marine biologists who carried out their own research whilst I made a reconnaissance. The Volkswagens were useful runabouts but not so good for cross-country work. There is a tale of one padre, stuck on a muddy track, leaving his car in gear, engine running, and going round the back to help it with a push. He claimed that he could usually catch it up when grip was restored.
Our wireless vehicles were half-tracks, heavy and primitive. Research was needed to discover their habits. They were well past their sell-by date, as sadly, was my Sergeant Major. His replacement arrived unexpectedly with family, so we put them up until a quarter was found. Then, around an August Bank Holiday, the Suez Crisis stemming from Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 called for military preparations. I was ordered to move to Colchester with a substantial body of men where we would be issued new equipment and made up to the required strength with Reservists. For a short time we were with the 3rd Divisional Signal Regiment, commanded by Eric Swainson, a future Signal Officer in Chief. We were issued with new six-wheeled Saracen armoured cars, though much else was familiar from the war years. All our vehicles were painted a desert hue as was a small Austin 7, not ours, that had parked in the wrong place.
Moving to Tidworth we trained for desert deployments and staff and Signals got to know each other. Cornfields had been reaped and provided suitable deserts for our purposes. At some stage we drove to Instow in Cornwall where we practised driving Austin Champs fitted with snorkels in shallow seas. All this done we moved to Chickerell Camp near Weymouth and joined up with two Royal Tank Regiments. Our third regiment, The Life Guards, remained near London.
There were many useful NCOs with me of a new breed who took the lead in spreading their skills on their own initiative. A Foreman of Signals ran an updating course, showing operators how to get the very best from their equipment and a Sergeant rehearsed all the horrors of dealing with badly wounded comrades. Foresight and imagination were given full play. At a later date we met the Navy and were taken round Tank Landing Craft that we then loaded. From then on we lacked equipment for training and had no forecast about embarkation. At this point I happened to phone the War Office with some question. The answer given, the officer concerned said “Oh, by the way, congratulations.” I replied that I knew no reason for his compliment, to which he replied “Perhaps I have said something I shouldn’t. Something to do with Crossed Keys.” This message was clear to me. I was to be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel to Command 2nd Divisional Signal Regiment. The Divisional Sign was the Crossed Keys of York where the Division was formed in 1809.
I was soon packing up and on my way back to Osnabrück, a place I had never got to know. The temporary relief who took over from me in August was able to soldier on and we moved to Hilden, near the fine city of Düsseldorf, to tackle what amounted to my fifth job in this extraordinary year. We were in the heart of the Ruhr with its coal mining and heavy industry, though countryside was within easy reach.
Instead of an Army quarter we were allotted a fine large house near to Benrath on the Rhine. Many such houses were appropriated in the early days of British occupation, though I never knew what misdemeanour qualified owners for ejection. The house came with all it occupants’ furniture. The space enabled us to provide accommodation in time of need. A subaltern returned from leave with his bride, a QARANC nurse from our local military hospital. She was turned away in disgrace from her place of work so we put them up until they could find their own place to live. It was nice to get a telephone call 40 years later - their Ruby wedding anniversary - reminding us of the event and saying that all went well with them.
The garden had been very fine and we did our best to maintain it without professional help. It was a great place for our young children to play. Strawberry beds produced basinfulls daily throughout the season. Nevertheless it benefited us later, when the property was handed back, to move closer to the childrens’ school.
The Barracks in Hilden, built for the Luftwaffe, were spacious and well built, but our Officers’ Mess was a makeshift building in the town. Military barracks in good order served us very well.