General reminiscences

By Gerry Berragan 48B

Having passed ‘the examination’, I then enlisted and received the ‘King’s Shilling’ at the Army Recruiting Office in Fishergate, York, in July or August of 1948. My brother Clifford, and cousin, Derek Kirkpatrick, joined the Army Technical School in September 1944 (44B), so had already left in July 1947. In early September 1948, I travelled from York, through London (for the first time) en route to Wokingham, clutching a small suitcase containing all my worldly possessions. That was then, but I now need a pantechnicon to move house!

An uncertain start…

Arriving at Wokingham railway station with a few other boys, we were met in the traditional manner by a Sergeant with a 15-cwt Bedford truck, who proceeded to transport us all to Arborfield. One memory I have is of being handed a sheet of paper with the official Arborfield address on it, to be used when writing letters home etc. The heading read ‘12345678 A/T A N Other’. I remember thinking ‘that’s an easy number to remember’, but pointed out to the NCO in charge that my name was G B Berragan and not A N Other! I cannot recall his exact reply, but it was something along the line of “We’ve got a right one here!” After being issued with our bedding, uniform and eating utensils, at some stage in the next day or two we were arranged, according to size, into ‘squads’, being informed that this was for drill purposes. The tallest group, which included Mike Addison, was placed under the command of Sgt Buckley, while I was in the next tallest squad, under Sgt O’Brien, who I believe was later commissioned into the RAOC.

At a very early stage, we were told to put on our uniforms and to parade in the ‘quiet room’ for inspection. After a brief look, Sgt O’Brien invited me to stand on a small table. With false pride, I thought I was being displayed as an example of an immaculate turnout. He then invited the rest of the squad to spot if there were any errors in my dress. Which they did to a man, gleefully pointing out that I had my gaiters on upside down!

I cannot in all honesty say that I was very happy during my first week or so at Arborfield – in fact I was most unhappy, having been described by the Room NCO as the ‘doom boy’ of the squad. Had I been in possession of the necessary money – was it twenty pounds then? – needed to purchase my discharge, I may well have taken that drastic course. Fortunately I didn’t and soon settled down to the life of an HQ Company 48B ‘Jeep’. In my efforts to please and in response to the duty NCO’s question upon entering our barrack room – “Can anyone here ride a bike?” I immediately put up my hand. I was initially very pleased when selected to cycle over to the Cookhouse and to report to the Cook Sergeant. But as I left the room, the NCO said, “Oh, by the way, there isn’t a bike, so you’ll have to walk”. I spent the rest of the evening feeding potatoes into a peeling machine, before forlornly sitting there removing their ‘black eyes’.

I well remember ‘passing off the Square’ after the obligatory six weeks of ‘square bashing’. I was the one who managed to do a ‘left incline’ when all the others correctly followed the order to ‘right incline’. But whilst fully expecting to be lynched, it appeared that I was given some credit by the Guards’ CSMs (who I believe were from Sandhurst) for remaining still until being instructed to do a ‘right turn’ and face the same way as the rest of the squad! I have the recollection that our squad won the drill competition, but cannot be too sure.

Sgt O’Brien, who was very fierce but nevertheless scrupulously fair and well respected, left after we had completed our square bashing and was replaced by a Sergeant from the Gloucesters (badges front and back), but I cannot remember his name. Major Charrington was our then Company Commander and we were paid ten shillings and sixpence (10/6d) a week. Out of that, we were actually given four bob (4/-) in cash each week, with all the formality of crashing boots, two salutes, and a cry of “Pay and pay-book correct, Sir!” On the religious side, I was confirmed in the School Chapel by the Dean of Windsor, on December 9th 1949.

Things can only get better…

My chosen trade was that of Vehicle Mechanic (VM) and I spent many happy hours filing and chiseling blocks of metal into ever-decreasing sizes. I could never understand how the various Polish (not polish!) boys managed. Indeed, I was most envious of the way that they not only seemed to complete the fitting task sooner than anyone else, but also gained the highest marks for the finish (not Finnish!) and excellence of their work. The Poles were not only skilled fitters, but also outstanding sportsmen.

After HQ Company, although I had expected that with all the other VMs I would go into B Coy, there were apparently too many VMs in our intake, so a number of us were put into A Coy. I have very little recollection of my time there, but I did play cricket for both the Company and the School teams throughout the summer of 1949. During that year I was promoted to A/L/Cpl and returned to HQ Coy as a junior NCO. I remained there for the next three intakes – 49B, 50A and 50B, gaining the next highest rank of A/Cpl and then, the first of my own intake, the coveted rank of A/Sgt, by the summer of 1950. Things were certainly getting better!

Although it meant giving up either a Saturday or a Sunday, playing sport for the School provided a wonderful opportunity to meet players from other teams and backgrounds, as well as travelling to other schools and colleges. We played at Eton, Charterhouse, Winchester, Pangbourne, RAF Halton and the two other Apprentices’ Schools at Chepstow and Harrogate. My mother came over from York to watch me play at Harrogate, where Lyons and myself, as opening batsmen, put on over a hundred runs – what a proud moment. A photograph taken at Charterhouse is a proud possession, although I can only recall a few of the names.

I captained the School Cricket XI for the 1950 and 1951 seasons and was awarded my School Colours. I was very proud to wear the gold on the forage cap and still have the small shield presented to me in respect of my period as School Captain. Whilst at the Apprentices’ School, I had passed my Army Certificate of Education at 2 nd and then 1 st Class; four subjects of the Forces Prelim; VM Class III; City and Guilds – and my motor-cycling and driving tests. External visits that spring to mind include the Festival of Britain exhibition (1951), the Morris car factory at Cowley, Oxford, and a trip to the Vauxhall factory in Luton.

One incident that comes to mind is the stabbing of the Provost Sergeant (Fred Silvers) by one of his own junior staff. It is of interest in that, although the stabbing took place on military property, the culprit was not, as to be expected, tried by a court martial. Instead, he was only put in front of the local magistrate’s court, where he received what can only be called a rather lenient sentence.

A spell in ‘the doldrums’…

During my last six months at Arborfield I acquired, jointly with a colleague called Routledge, a motorcycle. It was a 1936 Zenith with a 500cc Jap engine, for which we both contributed £20, a small fortune to us. It was, of course, totally illegal, but we kept it in a farmer’s barn on the left-hand side of the road between RSM McNally’s house and the Bramshill Hunt. Despite our ‘skill’ as VMs, the machine was continually breaking down and I have a very clear memory of pushing it back the full seven miles or so from Reading.

Many of our Saturday nights were spent dancing at the Drill Hall in nearby Wokingham. But on numerous occasions I would end up soaking wet as I rode the bike back to Camp in pouring rain and cold conditions. This could well be the reason why I contracted rheumatic fever whilst on leave, having just passed out of the AAS in July 1951. Thanks to that bout of fever, I was admitted to the military hospital up in York, where I spent the next four months.

That may sound pretty good, but for most of that time I was confined to bed, lying flat on my back and virtually unable to move. Having certain reservations about using a bedpan, I would drop off the bed in the early hours every night, stuff a pillow under the bedclothes and literally crawl on my hands and knees to the luxury of the toilet! Why no member of the nursing staff realised that I hadn’t used the bedpan for the three months or so that I was bed-bound, I’ll never know. It will remain a mystery – but also a great relief!

At the end of my time in hospital, it was touch and go as to whether I would be medically discharged, as I had been downgraded to P7 HO (Home Only). Fortunately for me, it was decided that I would remain in the Army and I returned to Arborfield to convalesce in late 1951. Thus, for a few short months, I became a Craftsman on the Permanent Staff (PS), back at boys’ school. Whilst there I obtained another more modern motorcycle, which I was allowed – legally! – to keep in the Fire Station opposite the Guardroom.

Upwardly mobile…

Around May/June 1952, I moved on to 14 Command Workshop at Ashford in Kent, where I subsequently gained my VM Class II qualification. Although at Ashford for a mere six months, I could probably write a whole book about my time there! But to keep it short, I played rugby and other sports and managed to get medically upgraded to P6 LE, with the result that I joined a batch of VMs posted to Austria. I was keen to become further medically upgraded, in order to apply for a commission and take the War Office Selection Board (WOSB). My time in Austria was memorable in that I gained my First Class trade, promoted to Corporal and finally re-assessed as P2 on the fitness side.

I applied for a commission in July 1953 and returned to England to attend the WOSB at Barton Stacey. Having passed the board, I was then employed at the Depot REME, again at Arborfield, whilst waiting to be sent to Eaton Hall, the Officer Cadet Training School based in Cheshire. It was during this time that the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, used the Army to break the petrol tanker drivers’ strike. I was a member of a group sent to the Regent Fuel Depot in Barking, Essex, and allocated a 2,000 gallon articulated petrol tanker to drive. It was a great experience at the time, particularly in the great welcome we received from the public at large.

Although very intense, I found the sixteen-week course at Eaton Hall relatively easy, following the three years spent at Arborfield. The vast majority of other cadets were young National Servicemen, who had completed no more than a few weeks basic training. I was promoted to Junior Under Officer – the first REME Cadet, I believe, to hold this rank. The greater part of that Eaton Hall intake was from either the Guards or Infantry Regiments. Upon leaving Cheshire in February 1954, I returned as a 2 nd-Lieutenant to attend a REME Young Officers’ (RYO) course at Arborfield and Bordon.

Career opportunities and changes…

During the RYO course, I was informed that I was to be posted as 2I/C of the LAD, 7 th Queen’s Own Hussars, who were returning from Germany to Tidworth, prior to a spell in Hong Kong the following August. As I had a few spare months between the RYO course and taking up my appointment, I applied to attend a parachute course. After two weeks with P Company in Aldershot and four weeks jumping at Abingdon, I qualified as a parachutist, but did not in fact join the airborne forces until 1963. During my subsequent tour in Hong Kong, the OC of the LAD was none other than Capt Pat Lee, who later went on to become DGEME. Whilst still in the Far East, I applied to take a Regular Commission Board (RCB) and after successfully overcoming that hurdle, I was transferred to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) in 1956. It was a significant year all round as, apart from the debacle that was later referred to as the ‘Suez Crisis’ – I also got married!

My service with the RAOC during the next thirty-two years encompassed many command and staff appointments in UK, Belgium and Germany. I attended the Army Staff College, the National Defence College, the Higher Defence College course at Monterey, California, and the Henley Civilian Management course. In addition to service postings, either on military exercises or ‘official business’, I managed to visit such far-flung places as the USA, Canada, Australia, China, Cyprus, Italy, Kenya, Singapore, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. When I hear the term ‘It’s a small world’, I know just what they mean!

I was eventually promoted to Major General and appointed Director General of Ordnance Services (DGOS) in September 1985. I was awarded the CB (Companion of the Bath) in the 1988 New Year’s Honours List and had the honour of accompanying HM the Queen (Colonel-in-Chief of the RAOC) throughout her visit to the Central Ammunition Depot, Kineton, in March 1988 (see accompanying photograph). I retired in June of that same year, but remained as a Colonel Commandant of the RAOC until the amalgamation of Corps that resulted in the formation of the Royal Logistics Corps (RLC). I was duly appointed as a Colonel Commandant of the RLC until 1998. I finally retired as Chairman of the RAOC Charitable Trust in 2002 and can thus claim service and/or a connection with the Army from 1948 right through until then – fifty-four years, boy and man!

Time to relax?

Following my retirement in 1988, I was appointed Chief Executive of the Institute of Packaging in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, serving in that capacity until the end of 1998 before finally retiring. I have three adult sons – one a barrister, one a Major in the RLC and the youngest a policeman. Between them they have provided me with five grandchildren. My brother Clifford’s second son, another ‘Gerry’ and ex-Royal Artillery, was promoted to Brigadier in 2001.

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