Chapter 39 : Ministry of Defence
I had worked in the War Office for a few months on one of the many occasions when I had been ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere to cover an emergency. The Ministry of Defence was adjacent, a fine new building since that time. Arriving at its portals I climbed the steps with General Sir Rodney Moore, our Commander in Malaya, who it was that had recommended me for the OBE when I left. By way of conversation I volunteered the information that after thirty years service the authorities had at last contrived to order me to work in this central establishment. His reply went better.
‘Not bad my boy. I have completed forty years service and this is the first time that they have got me here’.
There is all too little of interest to reveal about the internal activities of this busy organisation even if the rules of security were to be stretched. For me it was a question of picking up the threads of progress on the projects that I had lectured on in my time at Catterick. Many separate organisations were involved and many highly qualified officers at all levels were making contributions. It was of great interest to visit the several Government research establishments involved and to learn about satellite experiments and the intricacies of providing a dial-up telephone and telegraph system between active service users who were often on the move. The system must have a high degree of security. Captains of industry were much involved with their own research and development that would lead to valuable manufacturing orders. They would be brought in on high level meetings and it was a pleasure to get to know them.
The full story of the great changes in military communications is set out in The Vital Link by Philip Warner. This was a time of astonishing rapidity in the development of components, equipment and systems. Choosing the moment to go firm on a final solution had its difficulties. Interoperability became a keyword. It was not solely an Army affair - interfacing with the Navy and the Air Force was a built-in requirement; international interest increased; Australia and Canada became involved; the United States supported the team approach. So ABCA was formed, taking its name from Australia, Britain, Canada and America. Each nation provided a Signals team working at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Visits there, to New York itself and to Washington all became part of my programme. I make no secret of the fact that I was able to fit in brief visits to the United Nations Building, the Gulbenkian and Fink amongst galleries and museums for my own education.
The projects had high profile in the MOD. An entry in Philip Warner’s The Vital Link tells my story:
‘Arriving at the Ministry of Defence in 1966 I found myself the Signals representative at the Centre of the political debates on Mallard (the project name) and it seems to me now that the greater part of my time in the MOD was taken up with this aspect of my job. As a lowly Brigadier it was a surprise, to say the least, to find myself called to the Secretary of State’s Office to brief Mr Healey, his Equipment Minister Roy Mason and the Chief Scientist Sir William Cook, on the Signals view on the situation and the essential nature of the project to the Corps.’ I was greatly impressed. If Lord Healey has a fan club I count myself an honorary member. Another surprise came when Edward Ashmore, then Chairman of the Defence Signal Board and a future Chief of Defence Staff, asked me to join him in his office to meet some US Navy Officers who had been sent to compare notes with their British opposite numbers on naval interest in the Mallard project. With their strong link with the Royal Navy, it was a surprise to them to discover that an Army officer should be immediately available and obviously on such good terms with the rival service to be trusted to give the briefing’.
In these late days of Empire my responsibilities covered some distant communications projects. I learned that my predecessor had arranged a tour for me to visit Hong Kong on the completion of a major rejuvenation of the telephone system there. I was booked on an Airforce flight and our first stop was at the Island of Gan in the Maldives. These numerous islands, barely rising above sea level, belong to India. They are atolls - coral reefs surrounding a submerged volcano. Gan itself is just to the south of the equator and is or was a convenient RAF refuelling station on the way to Singapore some 2000 miles away. It is 750 miles from the tip of India. We spent the night there and refuelled before continuing our journey. Those of all ranks serving there took great pleasure in telling us of their experiences on one of the larger islands and the aquatic pursuits they followed. The enthusiasm of service men in strange surroundings is always good to experience. My outward journey took me to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur before moving on to Hong Kong.
There was a pleasant surprise for me on arrival. The Commander of British Forces, Hong Kong, was Johnny Worsley. He and I had been teaching colleagues at Quetta Staff College when the war was running to an end. Now Lt General Sir John, he invited me to be his guest for the duration of my stay. Another asset was the availability of a helicopter for my transport. High points are chosen for aerials for Signals transmissions over longer distances and arrival by air at the 2000ft high locations was the best way to travel. Another experience that stays in my memory is looking down on a quintessentially British scene at Stanley. There were small figures, clad in white, on a wide expanse of green lawn. It was, I think, a Guards Battalion conducting the ritual of a cricket match.
The small ceremony of ‘cutting over’ from the old telephone system to the new was attended by representation of the firm that had carried out the work. They had arranged a complex device to switch over, circuit by circuit, when I pulled away a lengthy string sequence of inserts. It worked. Another communications visit took me the naval establishment on Stonecutters Island. They handled long-range high-power communications to the UK and other stations that probably covered the requirements of all three services. Their major problem appeared to be the leaky roof structure. Dripping water and high power electrical circuits do not mix well. A third communications device was a novelty, though I never discovered its owner. The visible part was a very large antenna for tropospheric scatter communications. It relied on the bending of radio waves round the world at some heavenly altitude in such a way that good communications could be maintained at greater ranges than could otherwise be achieved. Apart from enjoying the social events that came my way I digested the general military problems of the area which included the control of illegal immigration from China. Such knowledge could have future value.
Then it was back to the commuter’s life in England. We had been provided with a ‘hiring’ in Chobham when we left Wilton. That is a government rented house employed as an officer’s quarter. Three children were now at boarding school and Claudia, the youngest, could go to a good local day school. The Old Rectory was of a good size with a spacious garden. With Crispin now teenage it was important to provide the young with suitable adventures in their holidays. A Vauxhall Cresta, acquired by chance from the Rolling Stones manager, was put to good use. With six of us travelling by any other means would have multiplied the cost of any holiday we might have considered. We went skiing at Alpbach in Austria where friends were building up the popularity of the resort, particularly for Army families. The Burge family joined us there in rented accommodation. Ski School was appropriate for acquiring elementary technique, but the aim was to be able to ski as a family as much as we could in the future.
In the summer we teamed up with the Ramptons, our friends from our time in Malaya, making a party of ten with two cars, but only three drivers. After one changeover I wondered why our followers were so slow in catching us up. After a dozen miles I stopped to check the keys in my pocket to discover there the keys that they needed.
We had introduced the newcomers to camping and made our way through France and Spain to Lisbon in Portugal. The episode is a story in itself. I was born into a family that records such important travel and events. Some of them date back to 1850 or earlier. This particular event, recorded day by day, is a work of thousands of words. A short extract from the ‘Landes’ on the way home, gives the flavour.
‘Tentage was wet when we came to pack up… We got everything under cover of the big tent and went for breakfast while torrents of rain poured down dramatically. This was quite the heaviest rain we had seen since we left Malaya four years earlier…. When it eased we returned to camp treading our way round and through pools of water inches deep. The four walls of the tent neatly surrounded one such pool, with much of our gear sitting in it. From this point the splashing about and loading up became hilarious’.
One takes the rough with the smooth.
About this time my father died. My mother, with her usual competence, sold the main house in Rye, acquired the second half of the 14th century house in Landgate Square next to my brother Nigel and set about remaking one house of the two separated halves. All was well, but what about the future? Two considerations led to a conclusion. Nigel should never be left to live on his own and it was time for me to consider where Sheelah and I would settle when I would retire in 1972. We would certainly sell the Camberley house that we had outgrown long ago. We should buy a house that would comfortably contain what in the end was four generations and it should be in the West Country.
My mother’s sister, aunt Isla, lived in Somerset and elements of the family had lived in Bath since the early 1800s. There were fine old rectories to be had, but examination showed that many of the rooms were behind the baize door in the servants’ quarters. This would not suit the loser in any allocation of space. We then came across a fine ‘Country House’ with six acres of garden but none of the open parkland around it. On good advice we chose an estate agent of similar stature to the seller and gave them instructions to acquire the house for us at a suitable price.
It was at about this time that I had the distinction of being appointed ADC to the Queen. There is always one member of my Corps that holds this appointment. The outward display of office is the wearing of the letters ADC below the badges of rank on uniform shoulder straps. A smart Aiguillette was also added for special occasions. By chance I was involved in Royal representation. One of the great names connected with the development of recreational skiing and ski mountaineering, Arnold Lunn, had died. The Duke of Kent, a keen skier and Patron of our Army Skiing Association, asked me to represent him at the funeral in Westminster Cathedral. I followed the instructions I had received, standing outside the large central door at the appointed time. The door swung open and Cardinal Heenan with clerical supporters bowed and led me down the aisle to a substantial isolated chair in front of the whole congregation. I remained in my lonely seat until the Cardinal with escorts appeared again, halting in front of me and bowing once more before attending to the service. The procedures then continued in reverse until we bowed to each other in the open air.
Arnie was a considerable author. He was at Harrow with my father, who was a year his senior. In writing of his school days he coined the word ‘athletocracy’ in complaining that the heroes were always the athletes, my father’s classification, and never the scholars. Appropriate to the occasion I believe that it was my father’s Harrow morning coat that I wore for the ceremony.