Chapter 42: Finale, 1969
With the move to Germany in 1969 I would enter my last years of military employment. Given a free choice I could not have made a better posting. Although more than 20 years had elapsed since the end of major war, stable peace in Europe was by no means assured. Russia was powerful and it was vital to show that the western world was trained, armed and ready to resist and defeat any incursion that might be planned. Service at SHAPE and then in the defence of the west was real soldiering. In addition it offered an interesting time in new surroundings with good facilities for our children who would be commuting to public schools in term time. They would make many lifelong friends with us during holidays. There would be no commuting but much travel for me. I wanted a people job as my last, for me more interesting than the paper and policy of the General Staff.
I have nothing against staff work. There is a ladder to climb from one rank to another and in peace time one gets a foot on the bottom rung on qualifying at a Staff College. This works well in peace but other priorities operate in war. For one reason or another, apart from being the Signals instructor at Quetta Staff College, it was 15 years before I took this first step, becoming principal army staff officer in the Malayan Ministry of Defence. I have no complaints.
Throughout one’s service one looks out for old friends after each move. I was not to be disappointed. The General officer in command for most of my time was Sir Peter Hunt. He and I had been on a Regimental Signalling Officers Course together in 1937 and in the immediately ensuing peacetime years he was Regimental Signals officer of the Cameron Highlanders whilst I commanded the Signals section of the Brigade we were both in. Further back still my Gunner counterpart would be Johnny Cordingley. He and I had been close friends as ‘Gentleman Cadets’ or GCs at the RMA Woolwich. There were links with many more.
Though there had been changes in Germany in my ten-year absence the threat from Russia continued. The establishment of NATO with major contributions from several countries including Germany stabilised the situation. Attack is only likely if the prospect of success is reasonably high. We were part of a formidable force with the active role of demonstrating the futility of taking us on. To meet the threat the distribution of military formations had been revised, fighting formations to the east and Higher Command to the west.
The Headquarters I joined at Rheindahlen had been purpose built near Mönchen-Gladbach. The country site, less than an hour’s drive from the frontier meeting point of Belgium, Holland and Germany, made good sense for the task of the time for this international organisation. A fine military town had been created for the Headquarters of the NATO Northern Army Group together with HQ BAOR, the British Army of the Rhine. A few miles away another area was developed for a busy Air Force station managed by the RAF. The whole was a major project and similar in concept to the SHAPE American design. There was a bank and shopping facilities, with the British NAAFI prominent, Clubs of various kinds were included, married quarters of all levels and all soundly built and laid out. We were well provided for.
Royal Signals responsibilities included the provision of ground communications at the two RAF stations. With four active Divisions, Corps Signals and an independent Brigade in Berlin this may have been the largest British peacetime command ever experienced. Berlin was of particular interest as many of its problems were unique. The city of Berlin, though well inside the main Russian Zone, was divided into four small zones of its own, one of them being British. Its communications were an important part of my responsibility.
The earlier problems of Berlin had not been forgotten. Our contingent there had to be sustained by a constant flow of supplies that required freedom of use of the road route through Russian Zone territory. In 1948 Russia had denied this access. This act cut off all land-transported supplies, reinforcement and equipment. A major air supply operation saved the day. In 1949 access by road was reopened, though under rigid Russian control. We stuck by the rules. Timed on entry to the zone and again on arrival at our destination ensured that no illegal deviations had been made. Our observation of the antiquity of farm tractors and other machinery on the journey illustrated how backward they were in many ways compared with the development of the time in the West.
For my purposes it was usually best to use air travel to the military airport there, but the road route had to be experienced. From the Signals point of view, both British and American, the chosen site was the so called Teufelsberg, the Devil’s Mountain. On high ground there are fewer obstructions between sender and receiver and that suits communications. The site takes its name because it was made from all the rubble created by the bombing of the city during the war.
It was in 1961 that the Berlin Wall had been built and Checkpoint Charlie was the limit of eastbound travel as far as we in the Army were concerned. It was part of one’s education to see the wall and the controlled traffic moving to and fro. Our Brigade was well established and looked after. With no tourist crowds in the city one could find a place at high-grade concerts and operas without previous booking. With fine open water for sailing and spacious woodland around, relief was easily found from the built-up areas. Late in our time in Germany my wife and children followed me and my staff car by the land route to see the city. They were able to enter East Berlin and see some of the fine museums there. In retirement I was able to follow suit and it was this time that good news reached us.
In preparation for leaving the army I had made a plan that involved my widowed mother and my blind brother Nigel. We would buy a house large enough to provide groups of rooms so that we each had our ‘house’ for living, cooking and sleeping areas. We would be able to be as together or as separate as suited the occasion or our individual wishes. This was a time when many stately homes were being pulled down for lack of buyers. Not only were the surviving properties absurdly cheap, but fine furniture from those destroyed was not only easy to buy but an excellent investment. On the wise advice of a house agent I had given them instructions to negotiate the purchase of Southill House in Somerset for us. They took their time, measured in years rather than months, and now said that the moment to buy had arrived. We paid and the property was ours.
Southill stood on a hill above the village of Cranmore between Frome and Glastonbury with fine views over Mendip country with its diminishing forest of that name. The substantial house dated from Elizabethan times but had been radically reshaped by John Wood the Younger, the great Bath architect, around 1770. The selling of houses in Rye and Camberley took no time in our absence, back in Germany and my mother, well used to army moves, spread the furniture to the rough and ready plan that we had agreed between us.
Back in Germany our minds were much engaged with matters in England. Nevertheless we made good use of the opportunity to explore interesting country from Rheindahlen. Maastrict in Belgium was an easy drive and Venlo in Holland provided a good introduction to the bulb industry. Improvements in Signals equipment were taking place slowly but that story is best told in the book The Vital Link by Philip Warner. I had first known Philip as a civilian instructor at Sandhurst in the time I taught there and it was a pleasure to work with him and many others in giving the support that he needed.
As a closing thought before leaving Germany I turn to the subject of ‘Sport’. It is important that soldiers should keep fit and for this purpose good games and athletic pursuits are encouraged. According to their skills senior officers presided over their speciality and Winter Sports came my way for those involving snow. ‘Sport’ in those times involved all standards in a variety of activities and there was something for everybody. Television has gradually stolen the word sport for gladiatorial performances of all kinds where those that should be taking exercise are herded into stadia and obesity becomes a national problem.
British soldiers of both sexes are adaptable and will turn their attention quickly to whatever activity is offered by the country of their military station. Much of the credit must be given to the young officers of the day who are ever ready to take the lead in encouraging enthusiasm for their own chosen sport and building good teams. Downhill racing calls for a balance of courage and judgement. In team races the whole team suffers if you fail to finish and team members do not wish to fail. The langlauf or cross-country ski races had greater military value. Teams of four faced an arduous course that included target shooting with time penalties for any target missed. Steady shooting and fast climbing demand remarkable fitness. At a later date Field Marshal Carver came out for the championships in Austria. I took him to watch activity on the shooting range. By chance the team to arrive was from a Signals Regiment I had once commanded and the four team members shot perfectly. There were no penalties. It was a proud moment but the tale must return to 1972.
Time was running out in Rheindahlen. I was formally ‘Dined Out’ in style by my old Regiment where Alan Yeoman was in Command. He had arrived at Sandhurst in my time there and was well on his way to becoming a Major General himself. Arrival at Southill ended more than 50 years of itinerant life, father and son ‘following the drum’.