Chapter 36: Home Service, 1964
For the adventurous, one of the charms of military life is likely to be that one’s occupation and place of work bring variety of location and new experience every two or three years. In times of emergency or war changes take place even more quickly. Up to this time I could record more than twenty different postings. Previous experience may dictate later employment. In my 20s I had headed the training of some hundreds of Signals Officer Cadets in India and taught at Quetta Staff College. Half a dozen years later I had taught for three years at Sandhurst. Perhaps I had become typecast as a teacher. In any case I was to become Chief Instructor at the School of Signals in Catterick.
The military decision taken, it is then up to the family to consider how the new situation will suit their needs. With four children ranging in age from three to nine it would be ideal for us. In this big Garrison town there were good facilities for most of the needs of the young with children of their own age to befriend. I would be with the family and did not have to face the tedium of commuting life to some large Headquarters at this important stage of their lives. Open moorland extended for miles from our garden fence. I knew Yorkshire well and there were endless opportunities for fulfilment in an active country life.
It was a further good fortune that this was a time of particular interest in the life story of Signals. The arrival of the transistor, first noted by me in Malaya, might be said to have given birth to electronics, as we know it today. Its extraordinarily rapid development brought the prospect of new equipment and devices across the communications world. On retirement I would be able to describe my career as ‘from semaphore to satellite’.
The arrival of this tiny device with its ability to do the job of a ‘wireless valve’ with a minimal requirement of input power was the nearest thing to a miracle that any of us in the trade were likely to experience. Indeed it was quite hard for instructors of the old school to adjust to the new arrival. I happened to mention this problem of adjustment at the French Signal School in Montargis. The instructor I was speaking to summed it up perfectly. ‘Moi, je suis tubiste’ - I am a valve man.
Quite suddenly plans for future communications were of the greatest importance. A Planning Wing had been created. It was located within the School of Signals and was commanded by my close friend, Tony Brindley, who had been one of my Squadron Commanders in Germany. Solid state devices, as transistors were known, would also transform the computer world. The enormous valve-operated devices of the wartime intercept world of Bletchley would become infinitely smaller and a great deal more reliable. A small step had been taken towards the personal computer of later years.
The new communications system would be easier in the sense that each user would have their own telephone number, as is the norm today. Royal Signals would man computers which, suitably programmed and updated, would route the required call and automatically find its way round any damaged section or sections - academic work on early forms of the Internet was taking place at this time. As a practical result, the need for the laborious laying and recovering of cables at each headquarters would be reduced.
Understanding of computers was going to be important and we in Signals took on the task of running courses for all branches of the Army. With John Balmer, Chief Civilian Instructor, I visited the Civil Service Commission to meet Dr Hunt who had put his name forward for the computer training job. We liked him at once and soon he joined us at Catterick. He became a good friend and made a great contribution to Army computing, first with us and later at the Royal Military College of Science. Young officers were no longer brought up on flag signals for morse and semaphore. Believing it important that they should achieve some of the skills of an operator I had introduced some teleprinter training. By good fortune the keyboard skills acquired were soon applied in their use of computers. The courses at this time benefited from our wartime alliances. Norwegian Signals ran a skiing course each winter for a group in their School in the Jostedal area and we endeavoured to entertain them in the summer in our own attractive surroundings.
There were many organisations throughout the country that wished to be kept informed of developments in the Planning Wing. However the Wing, with many of the brightest of our young officers, was fully tied up in the technical development of the new concept. I found myself appointed to lecture on the subject on their behalf. This was no mean task, involving the Navy and the Airforce as well as the Army. The longest single journey was for Anti-Aircraft Gunners in Manorbier, Pembrokeshire, 300 miles each way. There was also a performance in Belfast for a study day there. I began to understand the merit of moving the School of Signals from Catterick to Blandford in Dorset to be closer to other Service schools. Lecturing at the Staff College, Camberley was the most useful. A fine new lecture hall had been constructed for them and Tig Gray, the Signals representative on the Directing Staff, had much to do with it. He gave much good advice on what to do and what not to do in the proposed lecture hall at Blandford. He also spoke of employing interior designers to improve an Officers’ Mess and this we did at Catterick with success.
The holiday breaks for students tended to coincide with school holidays even though they were not so long. This gave us the advantage of being able to plan children’s holidays ahead. In the history of holiday development this was at a time of great expansion in the camping world, with well-run camping sites to choose from. Though brought up with caravans we chose tents and a larger car to improve mobility. Buttermere became a favourite for short excursions and Helvellyn was amongst Lake District climbs. My own youth was lived in an age when one was expected to be able to walk one’s age in miles. Claudia, our youngest, passed the five-year target and probably exceeded it.
Another important task, particularly for the children, was to regain contact with old friends after six years abroad. Stuart Burge and I had known each other from the age of seven. He had made a career in the theatre as actor and freelance director. It is rewarding to have friends in other walks of life than one’s own. The children of the two families alternated in age, five of theirs and four of ours. The outcome of our first joint enterprise had its surprises. At about this time the BBC had chosen the Outer Hebrides for two productions. They may have been Whisky Galore and The Dark Island. Stuart had heard such powerful stories of the charm of these islands that he proposed that we should all holiday there and he booked a cottage on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. With the aid of a large tent it would accommodate the large party. Perhaps fortunately, theatrical work kept Stuart too busy and we set out as a party of seven that included young Nicholas Burge. We camped rather wetly at Oban and caught the ferry to Castlebay at the south of the island. With the smaller party, the car and camping gear could be left behind in Oban.
A taxi took us the five miles to the Cockle Strand, a long beach with a surface that was sufficiently hard to be used as a runway for the rudimentary air service from the mainland. Our ‘cottage’ stood at one end. The owner worked in Oban in the summer so no one was there to advise us. She had provided a key. With some of the provisions we had brought with us we began to prepare our first meal. There was only one small knife in the building and this had to be used for all purposes. There had been talk of a room ‘upstairs’. But examination by climbing on stacked furniture showed that the loft, that it turned out to be, was unsafe for carrying human weight. Somehow we made ourselves ‘at home’. Getting supplies presented a further problem. A van passed the property twice a week and it stopped for us when the driver learned of our presence. Milk came straight from a cow. Initial stocking up was achieved by walking the five miles to Castlebay, making our purchases and getting a taxi back. We had no telephone and do not remember a post box in the area.
In spite of all the surprises we had a splendid holiday and were left with much to remember. We walked everywhere. The West Coast had mile after mile of beautiful sandy beach that we had to ourselves. We went fishing and could swim. It was perhaps a Swiss Family Robinson experience if not a Robinson Crusoe one.
One of the important courses run at Catterick in my time was the Telecommunications Engineering Course. During the war years young officer training was short. Specialist Advanced Wireless and Long Lines Courses extended the skills of the few. There was a pressing need to produce more qualified and skilled engineers in the war entry age bracket. Our courses were popular with overseas students and India in particular sent us officers of the highest standard. One of these, Captain Mukerji arrived in my time and was allotted a married quarter close to ours. No sooner had he arrived than his wife, Aroti, was admitted to the maternity ward of the military hospital. Here was an emergency for our ladies. Sheelah trawled the wives of Whinny Hill and collected a wide variety of objects that might be of use to the young mother and her baby daughter. There was a further problem. India is a land of many servants and Mooke - as he came to be known - had no kitchen skills. In due course Mooke became a Lieutenant General and Signal Officer in Chief of the Indian Army. He maintains to this day that it was Sheelah who taught him to cook.
Our time in Catterick eventually drew to an end. One of the great advantages of the experience was that I had met large numbers of members of my Corps of all ages. Wherever I went in the future I would be meeting old friends. Our Commandant, Gerry McGill, handed over command before I left. The new arrival remarked to me one day that we seemed to be working on a system more akin to that of Monarch and Prime Minister than the normal military rank ordered arrangement. Plainly he did not approve. I do not defend our arrangement, but believe that in our case the Commandant and his two Colonels had such a strong bond of mutual confidence and understanding that rigid top down control could have been less rather than more efficient. Our system worked very well.