Chapter 31: 2nd Division - Hilden
My welcome by the Divisional Commander, Major General Cosmo Nevill was unique. His opening remark was “I fold my socks like your mother taught my mother to fold socks.” If there was ice to be broken this did it. I was amongst friends and, it seemed, many of them. Jock McNeil, Artillery Chief, had been one of my instructors at Catterick. The Engineer Chief and the principal Administrative Staff Officer had been cadets of my term at Woolwich. The senior Operations officer Derek Horsford and I had rarely met, but knew of each other well. We kept being asked, both in India and Camberley, if the other was, ‘your brother’. To confuse matters further our wives were Sheelah and Sheila.
The welcome may have been exceptional but the circumstances were too, in the opposite sense. Although it was a dozen years from the end of the war there were many difficulties that persisted for years and we, in Signals, had some special ones of our own.
This was a time of genuine threat and uncertainty. It was plain that Russia was ready to seize any opportunity that offered them an advantage. The Berlin blockade by Russia had failed by 1949. It was an attempt to isolate the city from the West and end the allied military government of the city. The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 was a symbol of the division of Europe into the communist countries of the east and the democracies of the west. My priorities must be governed by the situation and their consideration illustrates some of the scene of the time.
People were of prime importance and I was well served but there was little stability of tenure. A team that is constantly changing cannot expect the highest standards but we would do what we could. For the National Service element there was constant change with welcomes and goodbyes every week. The best of the officers were excellent by any standard. They gave their best and probably got the most from their experience. Of the soldiers, their time with us depended on the trade in which they were trained. Technician training consumed some half of their service, so their rate of change was highest. There were a few miscreants who wished to test the military punishment system to the full. I believe that they left with considerable respect for military authority.
My great disappointment was the arrival of two West Indians with names of Walcott and Worrell in the era of the great cricketing legends, the 3Ws - Walcott, Weekes and Worrell - yet neither of our West Indians played cricket! No trouble came to my notice of maltreatment of the coloured element. I believe that the small working groups in Signals helped a great deal. Three operators would man a wireless station and four linemen a line laying team; there could be no splitting into factions. They would develop their own team spirit and there were several of the coloured that became NCOs in charge of such a group.
Amongst the Regular officers there was change too. Many of the older wartime commissioned officers had served on; people who had enjoyed the life, including those that had been commissioned from the ranks. Their age and qualifications often made it unlikely that they would get promotion beyond the rank of Major. They were sensibly considering a second career or the return to some career they had entered on before the war started. Four of my majors left within a year and similar losses occurred within the senior NCOs who were suffering much of the brunt of the extra work which came their way in a National Service Army. Replacements at all levels came through new growth amongst those that had achieved promotion to responsible rank since the end of the war. They were different in kind from their predecessors, having developed in the changing circumstances of society and leadership.
The practical tests of our Regiment were the exercises involving several levels of Headquarters and the communications between them, with moves as the ‘battle’ developed. It was said that the concept for some years had been that the Headquarters of an infantry Division should find cellars to operate from. Signals conformed as far as possible, but the constant unloading of sets and equipment did it no good and communications were poor. This was probably an experimental attempt to survive nuclear weapons and maintain command communications. A counter argument might well have been that both sides had atomic devices and each would be reluctant to start using them as retribution might well prove worse than any temporary advantage gained. Woodland for concealment became popular and Signals operated from their vehicles.
There was a second wartime hangover that had much influence. The great success of Signals Intelligence derived from intercept and the brainpower of Bletchley was well remembered. This generated a philosophy which might be read as ‘better to have no communications than give away information’ - an over-reaction. Operators arriving from training would try and establish communications with minimum aerials and fail. They had to learn to establish communications quickly with a full antenna and then reduce power if a good link could be maintained. In a broader sense we developed the guiding principle that Signals should provide the best quality communications possible with the equipment available and giving priority for operational command. I have wondered since about my lack of Regimental service. Was it perhaps an advantage at this time that I did not come with too many preconceived ideas and had to think all problems out for myself?
One striking lesson from the exercises was that many of our vehicles were either non-starters or non-finishers of the course. Our excellent REME Light Aid Detachment was kept busy with the more serious repairs. Could we do something to improve the general standard of maintenance? The earliest misjudgement in this field went back to mechanisation in 1938. Our drivers H/T, the H standing for Horse, could look after their charges, so presumably drivers M/T could look after Motors. Wrong!
For those accustomed to motoring today, few of the minor troubles we suffered ever arise. In those days starter motors failed to compete when cold weather gave sump oil the consistency of treacle; damp weather diminished the ignition spark though towing or push-starting sometimes solved the problem. It was not easy. The German Air Force had left us an inspection bay, so I reverted to the method I had used in Burma. I found two National Service lads who were interested in vehicles and set them, with REME coaching, to run routine inspections. Faults detected could be dealt with.
It occurred to me that we might have much to learn from my counterpart with the 7th Armoured Division whose Signals developments would have been on different lines from ours. I was glad to fly to Verden with my workshop Technical Officer who would be responsible for any modifications we were to make. Standard patterns of command vehicles did not exist so DIY was the order of the day. Designs included lean-to offices to be taken down and put up in the new location.
Whilst work went ahead in the workshops, I turned my attention to Jimmy Paterson’s Radio Relay Troop. This was provided with a form of communication that I had not met before. It provided four speech channels ‘multiplexed’ on one radio ‘carrier’ wave. Imagine four different tunes, each played in a different octave. These can be separated and sent their individual ways at the receiver station. This gives an indication of the method. The quality of the speech resulting was like a good modern telephone. At this time our Command communications in the British Army of the Rhine were using wartime radios. The links were somewhat tenuous with poor quality and placed a considerable strain on the officers using them. Distances between Headquarters tended to be greater than those experienced in war and this made the situation worse. How much better it would be if we could contrive a Radio Relay command system and at the same time engineer, over the same links, teleprinter connections for administrative requirements.
Further development produced a broadcast loudspeaker in the operations office so that urgent new developments could be picked up whilst carrying out other work. The result was applauded in the Division though it produced minor difficulties elsewhere. Yet, ten or more years later, our ideas formed the basis of the system planned and developed for the Army. As this development proceeded the Division was visited by the Secretary of State for War, Christopher Soames, and I was required to show him round and speak of our problems. Seeing a familiar wireless set he exclaimed, “I had one of those in my tank in 1942, shortly before I was wounded.”
A question came into my mind: why was it that everyone knew of the great wartime exploits of the 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions, yet the 2nd Division remained anonymous?
I returned to thoughts about the great battle of Kohima 15 years earlier in Assam that ended any fear of Japanese victory. The principal player, though not the only one winning great distinction, was the 2nd Division that was, of course, part of General Slim’s ‘Forgotten Army’. It was time that it was remembered. A Divisional Headquarters and its Signals Regiment are such an integrated team that the initiative of recalling Headquarters’ former glory for current celebration could sensibly come from Signals. I had seen the beauty of Kohima in 1942 when the tattered remnants of General Slim’s Burma Corps HQ passed through. I also had involvement with an Indian Division in clearing the Imphal Plain to the south of Kohima and saw Kohima itself shortly after the defeat of the enemy was complete. The whole area resembled the worst pictures of war-torn France in 1918.
We decided to look into our Regimental past and involve our soldiers in the wartime history of our predecessors. An important discovery was that the Signals unit had been disbanded in India, so that there had been no-one to bring their story to new post-war members carrying the famous name. A new Regiment was created by renaming another Division, believed to have been Territorial that took on our name but no memories to go with it. We set out on a course of research, but the main decision was to run a celebratory event, to be called the Kohima weekend in the summer. There would be military recognition of sacrifice in a Church service and a country fair with sporting activities. This would also be an appreciation of good work done by both the hard working regulars and National Service soldiers. The latter produced many original talents as entertainers, the most memorable performer being a white mouse called Amadeus. There were numbered arches of appropriate size and customers were invited to place their money on the arch that Amadeus would choose to come out of when released by his owner. I never knew if this small performer did a full National Service tour with the Regiment.
The Divisional Commander attended our function and presented the Regiment with silver Crossed Keys, the Divisional sign. Soon thereafter we had a further reward. He decided that the new Officers’ Mess building, designed for junior staff, should be ours. We could move out of our inappropriate town dwelling. The Kohima celebration continued with an All Ranks dance. In this time of bootlace ties, bother boots and the jitterbug it was quite an occasion. The development of these Kohima events is a story that can wait. Sufficient to say at the time of writing in the year 2000 that we have recently taken part in a well-attended Kohima event in York with strong support from ageing veterans of the battle from all arms of the Army. The Duke of Edinburgh took the salute as we marched past the saluting base on the southern-side steps of York Minster.
Back in Hilden the DPs were great contributors to our work. The abbreviated name was used to describe the Displaced Persons, mostly Polish and Czech, who had escaped their own country and taken sides with the Allies. There was little hope that they would ever be able to return to their countries of origin. Their military employment with us was as a Defence Platoon in which they had long service. They were robust and cheerful company and also very useful. On any exercise in which we were involved they seemed to have great knowledge of the country and the people with farms and lodging who could help us. I surmise that the German Army on training had always demanded help from the locals and we were given the same treatment, barns being opened to sleep soldiers and houses opened to some degree for the Staff. This helped to moderate the misery of extreme cold or wet.
At that time wartime battle dress was our clothing and the gas capes that had proved useful in Burma did not seem to be available. Our linemen suffered most. Not only were they out in the elements a great deal, day and night, but they stayed on for a day or more after the exercise finished, recovering cable. We improvised a drying tent by taking one of the cooking devices and blew heated air through hanging clothing.
I also tried to show that good work was properly appreciated. In earlier authoritarian days soldiers were rarely called to the Commanding Officer’s ‘Orderly Room’ unless they had done something wrong. I chose to call people who had done well to my office to give praise and thanks to those that had given good service. The linemen were certainly among them and the Army Catering Corps cooks who were doing excellent work to see that all were well fed. Everyone was busy. Radio sets were made up of components rather than sub units that could be exchanged. Fault tracing under pressure was a steady routine of the times.
Odd job man employment came my way as usual. Someone remembered my Motor Cycle Trials experience and I became course setter and manager for the divisional event with similar occupation at the British Army of the Rhine. This came to an end when it was recognised that a man on a motor cycle was vulnerable. Thereafter a two-man crew in a Champ was used in dangerous times.
Similarly in skiing I was caught up at several levels. Competitions were keen in downhill and cross-country events and with modern teaching and new developments in equipment soldiers in unit teams reached high standards of fitness and skill.
Early in 1958 we learned that the 2nd and 6th Divisions were to be amalgamated and that the resulting formation was to be located in Bünde, much nearer our controlling Corps Headquarters in Bielefeld. From the Signals point of view this led to hurried study of the rules so that the best arrangements could be made for retaining Signals funds and property for the combined Divisional Regiment. I was lucky to be given command of the new unit.
It was while the arrangements were going on that I was struck down with jaundice for the third time. In Egypt and later in India the attacks had been tiresome but not severe. On this occasion it was serious, lengthy and thoroughly unpleasant. I will not dwell on it. My regiment moved and when fit enough I was moved to a hospital nearer to my new abode. Three weeks recuperative leave was ordered, which was a blessing after the busy and confused life of the previous two years. The only previous excursion I remember in Germany was to the Nürburgring to watch a great Grand Prix. The long course was nothing like the modern circuits, weaving its way through forested and hilly country where one chose one’s picnic site in wide open spaces. Our young children were able to play their own games in absolute safety without close neighbours to take offence. This turned out to be one of the epic races of all time, won by the great Fangio in the year of his retirement.