Chapter 38: Trying Times, 1965
I had now become the Chief Signal Officer in Southern Command with the rank of Brigadier. A brief handover was completed and it was time to discover what important issues needed to be addressed in my areas of responsibility. The search was fruitless. Territorial Army activity was not great except as a club for wartime warriors who enjoyed my occasional visits. The supposed involvement with the TA for time-expired National Servicemen was not popular. ‘Withdrawal from Empire’ occupied most military minds. Great reforms were overdue and these awaited the arrival of General Carver as Chief of the General Staff.
The few Regular Signals Regiments in my area received their directions from the War Office or their local commanders. Once again they could be visited and help offered if any was required. The COMCAN Signal Regiment was of particular interest. The initials stood for Commonwealth Communications Army Network, linking a couple of dozen countries all over the world. This long-range world-wide system relied on immense static high-powered machinery feeding aerials suspended over wide acres on towering masts. Having enjoyed a lifetime of work under pressure with clear aims I found no satisfactory way to adjust to lesser activity. The fault may have been entirely mine.
Fortunately my location in the south of England enabled me to take up, once again, Committee appointments with the Ski Club of Great Britain, the National Federation of the day, and the Army Ski Association. This could involve participation in the running of race meetings in the Alps and training young skiers with such stalwarts as Soss Roe, the British women’s champion for many years. Then came an interesting surprise. Before the days of reliable air travel the military outposts of Empire lived in splendid isolation. If they had problems they had to be solved locally. With fast-developing air travel it came to be accepted that there was value in sending senior officers to visit far-away places. This would make clear the interest of ‘higher authority’ in their activities and problems. Face-to-face communication was much more efficient than lengthy exchange of letters. It was revealed to me that there were several Signals outposts across the Atlantic providing communications of importance. How they came to be associated with Southern Command, I have never discovered.
A flight to Bermuda and on to Nassau in the Bahamas launched me on a new venture. Here there was a substantial area communications centre with civil as well as military staff. Minor visitors find themselves briefly important in visiting small places. One signs the visitors book of the Governor or other dignitary and on this occasion it resulted in an invitation to a lunch with a Royal visitor. Tourism was active, primarily with ship borne travellers. The island was undoubtedly popular with its military inhabitants.
I flew on to Miami for an overnight stop before enplaning for Belize, the capital of the then British Honduras - now called Belize. We had not gone far before our pilot broadcast the news that, because of some fault, we would have to go back to Miami and before that we would have to fly around for a while to burn off some of our fuel load before landing would be safe. The advantage of this change was that I got into conversation with my American neighbour who offered to show me round the Miami neighbourhood if time was available there between my other planned visits.
The Army barracks for the Belize garrison were in open plain a modest distance inland from the coast, the main component being an Infantry Battalion. Once there, formal activities were soon over and people of all ranks were telling me about the sailing, the swimming and the wild life that attracted their interest. Alternative subjects included the Mayan civilisation and the Yucatan Peninsula. Exploring inland, where training might take place, there was open rolling grassland that quite suddenly converts to thick tropical forest and becomes more mountainous. Beyond lies Guatemala which became a military threat from time to time.
It was a stroke of good fortune that I found old friends in command at all three of the main places visited on my tour. Two had been instructors at Sandhurst with me and the third had been a staff officer with the 2nd Division in my time.
A sailing expedition to one of the Cays, low islands of sand and rock, revealed a large population of ponderous pelicans along the coast. Inland delicate humming birds and decorative butterflies were a delight. Toucans were unmistakable. Belize now provides popular holidays for birdwatchers.
I was soon on my way again to Tampa on the Gulf of Mexico where a courtesy call had been arranged to a military establishment that supposedly had similar functions to our own. The truth was that they had immense resources of all kinds, whereas we had very little. The ‘withdrawal from Empire’ provided active occupation for our troops overseas with all too little left for other emergencies. It was impressive and interesting to be well briefed and they were kind to their poor relation. I was able to visit Saint Petersburg nearby. With its pleasant climate and excellent facilities it had become popular for the retirement of well-to-do Americans.
From there I was to fly across the arid centre of Florida to West Palm Beach and a seaside hotel. I was shown around as promised by the friend made on the Belize flight. He had many interests. A local radio service occupied him in some way and at one stage, driving in his car, I learned that the conversation that we had been having was being broadcast live to the surrounding public.
My next call would be eastward to British Guiana, calling at Jamaica’s Montego Bay and Port of Spain in Trinidad. I had always thought of it as part of the West Indies, which it is, but the surprise was that it was a good deal closer to South America’s Venezuela than Dover is to Calais. Once again there was a stay there to await a flight to British Guiana.
The fine hotel I was directed to was most unusual. A taxi drove me up a hill to the main entrance which led in to the usual reception desk and other facilities including a long bar with splendid views. To get to one’s room one takes a lift downwards to one of the half dozen floors below, effectively down the face of a cliff. The coastal mountains of Venezuela continue through Trinidad to a height of 3000 feet. There are welcoming sounds of calypso, if not of carnival, as one emerges from the airport.
The Georgetown military welcome to Guyana, the former British Guiana, was equally warm, if not so colourful. The first surprise was that the sea was cloudy rather than crystal clear. The explanation given was that the waters of the Amazon still carry silt along this northerly shore for more than 700 miles. Both Trinidad and Guyana, as it is now called, achieved independence in the 1960s and became Republics in the 1970s. Both have mixed populations, the original peoples, displaced by earlier neighbours, killed by disease on various European occupations and reinforced by African slaves followed by Asian indentured labour. Guyana even has a Hindu minority and a Chinese community.
The opportunity soon came to let the soldiery instruct me on their interests and experience. As elsewhere there was no lack of initiative. For the most energetic here was the 150 mile trek to the South to the Kaietur National Park to view the dramatic waterfalls there that feed the Essequibo River. 750 feet high and 350 feet wide it sounds a target worth the effort. The river further south has other properties - it harbours piranha. Those I spoke to said that they sometimes swam there, so it may not deserve quite the reputation it has acquired. Other memories are of immense vehicles with wheel tops well above eye level garnering bauxite to be shipped to Canada for the production of aluminium and seeing the rare manatee or sea cow in the sluggish waters of the narrow coastal plain.
A flight to Ascension Island connected me with main line flights that took me home to England. The whole story reads like a wonderful extended holiday, that in many ways it was. What was the right balance between the cost of flights and the value of the results achieved? Years later I put the question to that astonishing polymath, Lord Solly Zuckerman, one-time Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Defence and later Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government. He quoted industrial experiments in the USA with doubled and then quadrupled visiting. The benefit continued to rise. Visiting paid off. He put my conscience to rest.
From the historical point of view we were drawing towards the end of a long era of small military outposts in far-away stations. I have a silver pocket watch with in inscription in the back ‘Lieut John Stuart, 33rd Regiment. Died at St Lucia 9th Oct 1842’. The 33rd was the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and his father Daniel Stuart, one of my ancestors. In 1800 Daniel owned the newspaper The Morning Post and was its editor. His correspondence with Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth was published in 1889.