By Chas Pepper 43B
Bovington 1952. Posted to the D & M school. The workshop was in two parts: one for A vehicles and one for B vehicles, my place of work. It was an unusual set-up as the officer i/c was an RTR captain entitled Technical Officer with a REME AQMS. Bovington seemed to have many ideosyncracies like this. This was my first contact with tracked vehicles and I was surprised to see a Churchill tank slipping and sliding about in a rain storm while ascending the hill from the museum, and at another time watching a Russian T34 sliding sideways down the other side of the hill on a wet day (see footnote).
I was the Sgt VM. The work was mundane even taking frequent and risky heath fire piquets into account. For some reason cylinder head gaskets were being sealed with the original version of Hermatite which set like Araldite. Once fitters had to be restrained from using screwdrivers and hammers to prize the head off while on another vehicle a crane was used to pull the head up, lifting the whole engine and breaking the engine mountings. In the A veh. workshop was a First World War tank which I found fascinating – whenever it was driven, I was there. Anyone who helped start its engine on that huge crank handle deserved a ride!
There was an odd atmosphere amonst the senior NCOs which I could not define. Several times a REME Sgt, who had arrived just before me, warned me to be careful to whom I spoke and what I said. Let me call him Sgt W. Many pleasant evenings were passed in the D&M Sgts Mess which had a fair share of characters; W and his wife invariably attending.
In time it became known that manuals relating to the Centurian tank had been passed to unfriendly powers from the Technical Officer’s Office. Considering the age of the tank one wonders why they bothered unless they were trying to snare the person involved. W was posted away. Rumour put the blame on a REME S/Sgt who had also departed.
1953. I start a tour abroad. 1955. Famagusta, Cyprus HQ, 51 Lorried Infantry Brigade. A big do in in the Sgts Mess. I am detailed to greet the various guests as they arrive. A large party of Cyprus Police inspectors have been invited among whom was W. Before I could greet him he said words to the effect of “Say nothing, or you are in trouble.” and walked on for an enjoyable evening.
While on disembakation leave in London, I saw the “rumoured” S/Sgt ahead of me on an ascending escalator in civilians and with his family. I tried to hail him but they vanished into the crowd.
What the outcome of the investigation was I have no idea, though the Daily Mirror ran lines on THE GREAT SPY SCANDAL.
In the winter of 1963 I was in BAOR at Hohne with 25 Battery 35 Regiment RA as an Artificer vehicles. The gun park was located on a site about 5 feet lower than the road out of the camp. The ramp leading to the road was more than the length of a Centurian tank, angled at roughly 30 degrees, and prone to water draining down it off the main road and icing up in winter.
There was a call-out for the Centurian OP which climbed the ramp and stayed there, tracks spinning uselessly. We tried every trick we knew to get the tracks to grip, to no avail. To our shame we had to get a tow on to the road. This was not going to happen again so an order went in for track grouts – studs fitted into the tracks. Not available. It was found the 9/16 BSF bolts were good substitutes and I put on demand sufficient to fit two to each third track-link. The idea worked a treat – the OP bounded up the ramp and away putting out a fine display of sparks on the concrete. When the OP returned all the bolts were worn away and missing.
It was agreed that it was a good idea so in with a new demand for the next time. Alas, the unusually large consumption of these big bolts, nuts and washers had been queried from wherever they came from, and we were denied any further issues of that magnitude. So that was the end of that idea. In the end, the OP was parked in an area some distance away which had no ramp to be climbed. Obvious really if it were not for pride!
1954, Sgt VM, my year in Korea completed. Farewell to my British and Canadian friends in the Commonwealth Div. Ordnance Field Park. Passed through the market selling useful aluminium wares, among other things, and reported to the rail head at Tok Jon where I found myself “elected” as the commander of rail car No. 3 (See attached orders below). One of the responsibilities was bringing hot coffee in open containers from the kitchen car. The track was rather rough so there was some spillage on the way back allowing me to learn familiar swear words in many different accents. Nothing untoward happened and we arrived at Pusan Transit Camp and from there to the docks to board a British troop ship. There was at this time a violent dockers’ strike so we were surrounded by armed US guards. A small US army band played us aboard and we were off. The trooper drew out into the harbour; we stood at our life-boat stations and, as we approached the harbour headlands, I heard a bugle playing the Last Post in Pusan cemetery. It is only later that one thinks about such things. (See below)
Soon we were in the South China Sea with magnificent sunsets and frequent water spouts. Often I wondered what it would be like if we ran into one. Next stop Hong Kong; while there a most peculiar trooper came in from Korea. Its name was “Captain Cook” and was built in several enclosed decks in order to repel China Sea pirates I assumed. Once docked, a myriad of doors opened and mainly REME disembarked from it. On again to see the coast-line of Ceylon rising above the horizon and shore leave in Colombo.
Next Aden with its streets full of elderly men making clothes on new German sewing machines. The Suez Canal with, among other sights, the gentlemen lifting their galeberas to display their family jewels, whether in pride or comtempt of us would be hard to say. Transit camp in Port Said in open-sided tents. Every morning we were awakened by packs of scabby dogs running under and over our beds. Onward by rail to Ismalia fully alert for the wrist-watch snatchers and the “Eggs a bread” man of ancient military folklore. At Ismalia I was well and truly gypped at the dhobi wallah’s compound: the only person there was what appeared to be a small boy smoking a hookah who gives me the price for my washing. Egyptian money at that time was indicipherable with usage so, trustingly, I offered the dirty bundle of notes only to find that I had been well and truly done. By the time I realized it, it was too late as we were on the move again.
Air-lifted to Cyprus to complete the 3-year tour. First stop Waynes Keep transit camp; the tents there were raised on concrete bases about 3 feet high, flood avoidance? Next stop, Command Workshops, Dekhelia, which was used to sop up the influx from Korea until we could be found “proper” jobs. I became MT Sgt; my initial service in the RASC made the task easy, though I did get the nick-name MOLOTOV who was the Soviet’s man at the UN whose reply to everything was NIET. It was hard to please everyone.
The EOKA troubles were beginning and the workshop set up a road block near its gates with a blacked-out binned trailer as the control post, a Bren gun in the bushes and the rest of us on the Larnaca road. The only person we stopped was a fisherman coming and going to work every night with the inevitable result that we all became matey and the Bren gun and trailer became increasingly visible. REME exercises of this nature used to make me smile as there were more senior ranks than juniors and uncertainties as to who was reponsible for what.
Time passes (quite pleasantly) but the Inniskillen Fusiliars at Famagusta need ME. The approach to their camp was quite dramatic: I was the sten gunner on an ambulance in a convoy of armed vehicles – ambushes from the orange groves were prevalent. I wondered what was ahead of me when I saw the “Skins” APTC S/Sgt manning a Bren mounted on the back of a Champ. I need not have worried as the days were too full of repair work for much else. Here I acquired another name “Ye Inglishmon”. Things settled down nicely: the two duties I did were Paddy’s Day which would be a story in itself and New Year when I saw the curious sight of the Pipe Major making the pipers empty the bags of their pipes of the spirits craftily nicked from the various messes where they had performed. I was sorry to see the Skins leaving as I had got on so well with them. They were efficient in dealing with trouble in their area. Their footware on patrol was base-ball boots; naively I queried this and the answer was, “These are for bopping”. Being a simple REME soul I thought of Bee Bop. My question was explained by a downward movement of the arm accompanied with the curt sound of BOP! The Skins were replaced by the Leicesters from Sudan who unfortunately patrolled in a regimental manner causing several casuaties from pipe-bomb throwers but they soon learned. Not a bad set but the time had come to move again.
LAD HQ 51 Lorried Infantry Brigade, Famagusta. Here we dealt with passing trade, recovered bombed vehicles and the HQ’s transport. Most of the bombed casualties were extremely gory without much damage to the vehicle. It seemed odd that men would travel in open vehicles in those pokey streets. On one occasion we had a call to pick up an RMP patrol Landrover which had been pipe-bombed. For some reason Major Johnson, BEME, came with us. The casualty was in a sunken road about 15 feet deep covered in the usual amount of blood, though the patrol were not badly injured. The site was empty when we arrived but suddenly both edges of the road became lined with people jeering at us. I looked up and thought that if this was a trap then we were goners. My mind went knumb with fear until I heard the BEME say, “Get on with it!” All panic vanished, years of discipline and training kicked in: we did the job neatly and were away. When we got back Major Johnson called me to one side and said, “Well done. You did a good job there.”, I thanked him but thought, “If only you knew my initial feelings!”. The RMP took a large percentage of injured due to their patrols and open Landrovers.
The majority of the Turkish population lived, in fierce defiance, in the castle, and during Ramadan they fired a powerful cannon in the evening, which, in that situation, was disturbing to say the least. While carrying arms we had to carry the PINK CARD, which had to be read out when challenging a local. It consisted of challenges in Greek, Turkish and English. A sour joke went: officer approaches sentry and demands that the man explains the procedure. “Well sir, I take out my card and challenge in Greek”, the officer still approaches, “then in Turkish and last of all in English”. “Ah”, says the officer, “I still come on. What now?” Back comes the answer, “I am obliged to shoot myself, sir!”
About this time the Suez landings started. The HQ was on the end of a long straight road which was ideal for aircraft to line up on to pay us a visit, which I found rather unsettling as I had been machine gunned several times during air raids at Cowes, IOW. Nobody seemed worried and no precautions were made. The best I could provide was to get the lads between the concrete inspection ramps. But nothing happened, thankfully.
The Suez episode brought us into contact with the French who seemed to be better equipped than we were. In order to improve aircraft landing techniques a fuselage of a Hastings was mounted on blocks and a steep ramp was built to the side-loading door. Champs were driven up the ramp where, inside the fuselage, a group of men grabbed the vehicle and man-handled it along the inside. Watching this ridiculous caper made me smirk as they were burning clutches at a fast rate: smelly blue smoke that you could recognise from a long way off. Meanwhile French rear-landing aircraft were flying overhead all the time.
November 1956. The three-year tour ends. I report to a forgotten assembly area and a large group of men bound for Blighty set off in a long, armed, convoy for Limassol. The journey took quite a while as we wound up and down hills on rough roads. We spent some days in Limassol transit camp – a most unpleasant place – the only compensation being that our group of Sgts were a most entertaining lot and time passed easily. Our troopship arrived, so down to the docks where we found that the ship stood off about a half-mile offshore using ship’s boats to ferry men on and off the ship. While we waited a Guards Bn was disembarking, all marching about in precise order: a fine sight but I wondered how long it would last with EOKA’s sneaky bombers on the prowl. A certain amount of amusement was afforded when one guardsman slipped on the boat’s gunnel and dropped his rifle into the water. The effect was explosive with people running about all over the place. One could only feel sorry for the man involved, cluttered as he was with full webbing and a kitbag in a bobbing small boat. Our turn came to board with crew members hauling us onto the gangplank’s lower platform and we were aboard. The Suez landings were over and the ship was over-filled with returning reservists so accommodation was tight: in some areas men were sleeping in the gangways.
The ship approached Wales and its dark, rainswept hills. A reservist ASM who stood near me said, “Thank God we’re home”. But somehow it did not feel like that to me. This feeling did not improve once in the Mersey: a filthy river made worse by heavy rain. The only bright spot was on the journey to London: I opened my haversack rations and this West Indian man was watching me attentively so I offered him an orange; his face lit up well in excess of what I had given him. It made up for the dim-lit carriage with rain-drops smearing sooty windows. Welcome home!
PS. There are five transit camps mentioned in this article – a normal part of travel in those days. Would other AOBA mambers care to say which were the worst transit camps of their experience. For me Hanover was bad for theft from transittees’ kit while Limassol was just plain awful
PPS. An explanation for hearing the Last Post when the troopship was leaving Pusan. Not long before leaving the OFP in Korea there had been a hut fire and the RAOC S/Sgt living in it was literally incinerated. There were many delays as various inspectors examined the site before his remains were removed. I felt that the Last Post was his – an odd feeling. Tent fires due to over-heated stoves were common. An order was issued to convert from petrol to diesel fuel to reduce stove-pipe temperature. A tent fire caused strange effects: a S/Sgt from the Water Filtration unit lost all his possessions and just escaped with his life. After, he would adjust the flame to the lowest possible setting and sit there wearing every bit of clothing while frost was lining the tent walls. On one occasion we had an elderly Canadian WO in with us who suffered terribly in the cold. We would turn the fire down before going to sleep. When our guest thought we were asleep he would creep over and turn up the flame. When we saw that he was asleep one of us would turn it down. Then he, thinking ………. and so it went on until exhaustion overcame him. Fortunately he only stayed a few days as we could not have stood it much more. The most comical sight was one Spring morning, bitterly cold, when we heard the dreaded call of “Fire”. We dashed outside putting on as many clothes as possible in time to see the inmates of the next tent hopping about in their underclothes throwing ice-cold water on to the top of the tent where the stove pipe exited. A large part of this water was falling back on them. Not major damage was caused but they were rapidly going blue with cold – much laughter at their expense.
in malaya with the gurkhas…
In June ’60 I received one of the most interesting postings of my career which was the formation of 34 coy Ghurka Army Service Corps. 28 Coy G.A.S.C. had completed their training and were posted to Hong Kong leaving the Camp for 34 coy to form-up.
The camp seemed to be built on the site of an old estate about 15 minutes walk from the small town of Batu Pahat on the west coast of Malaya. The British and Ghurka officers were a good bunch and knew their job while the L.A.D. staff, commanded by Capt. Starkie (I was the S.Sgt Art Veh) were right for the task ahead. Most of the boys were National Service men and as new arrivals came and received their first letter from home, the oldsters would gather around, watch the recipient’s face and invariably sing out “Dear John”. Rather cruel, but absence obviously did not make the heart grow fonder.
The work was of the usual nature but, because of our isolation, there was much improvisation. One peculiarity was the effect of lightning storms on charging systems, which could only be restored by getting the engines running to remagnetize the pole pieces. This took a bit of time with motor cycles. The working bays were next to the Ghurkas’ cookhouse and their ration truck would park in our workshop overnight. On the first occasion this happened we assumed that the vehicle was for repair and blithely dropped the tail-board only to be deluged by a mass of stir-happy goats only too happy to be avoiding being the week’s curried meat supply. There seemed to be much merriment among the Ghurkas as the round-up increased in excitement.
One had to learn quickly some of the Ghurkas’ ways: once, after a vehicle was repaired and the driver was told to remove it, he refused point blank. Things got tricky and then he said “This is a bad truck, sir. I will not get in it.” It took a Ghurka Sgt to sort that matter out.
There was an attempt to train a G.R.E.M.E. and a young boy was attached to the L.A.D. He was a good lad but without the technical background the idea was doomed. Arising from this training I picked up the appelation GURU, an accurate preconception as after leaving the service I spent twenty-odd years as a lecturer in Further Education.
Now as every Art Veh in a remote station knows, he is imbued with remarkable abilities: in this case I became the cinema manager! The open-sided Ghurka mess hall was the auditorium and the screen was a near-transparent linen sheet which allowed two audiences: those who paid on the inside and those who did not on the outside looking at a reversed picture. Local children from the kampong opposite the camp got in free, so that there was a real mix of an audience. Once there was a U.S. Air Force thriller which progressed into this B29 reaching a great height and a window bursting; the tension increased; a minor hero was being drawn out through the hole until all that could be seen were his boots. Holy horrors! The screen turned brown and the projector emitted smoke. An almighty roar went up from both sides of the screen and plaintive cries of “S.Sgt” which was me. But I could not do much as the film was too damaged. After some argument refunds were made, but I fear my reputation as a film manager suffered in more than one nation!
To celebrate some forgotten occasion a fancy dress FOOTBALL match was arranged between the Sgts’ and officers’ mess. We dressed as cave men wearing sacks with holes for heads and arms. The officers dressed in more sophisticated garb. Tex Ambler, our irrepressible stores Sgt arranged with the farmer over the road to hire an ox cart. Off we went through a side gate, along the main road to the main gate, causing astonishment to locals as we went. Arrived at the officers’ mess and the ox, joining in the fun, deposited a large calling card directly in the entrance – a good start. Both teams got on the field and a bugler marched to the centre of the field and raised the bugle to start the game. Someone had stuffed some flour down its spout so all we got was a “parp” and a white cloud. At this the bugler kicked the ball and the game was off. The crowd on the field just grew: yapping dogs and anyone who felt like joining in. What it looked like to an outsider I dread to think. The ball vanished in the melee and, as there were no goal posts, there was no way of declaring a winning side. When the whistle blew we gave three cheers for each other and hobbled off to our respective quarters looking most ridiculous in our sacks.
Exotica. On some evenings a Malay drum band would play nearby using a range of different drums making a pleasant sound. Approaching rain could be heard far off beating on broad-leafed plants. There was a hill to the side of the camp where I sometimes sat to watch the walnut-whip shaped clouds flickering with internal lightning flashes. Sometimes I waited until sun-set to be in the middle of birds moving from darkness to light and bats coming the other way, both eating flying insects while on the wing. It was curious to have these creatures swirling around me emitting squeaks and snapping teeth and beaks as a catch was made. Never once did bird or bat touch me. The amount of visible wild life was astounding but to this day I have an abhorence of big insects.
Erotica (perhaps). I saw recently in a guide book that Batu Pahat had become a minor Sin City for jaded Singaporeans. Perhaps 34’s L.A.D. started it. One evening I and another senior N.C.O. were making our way to a restaurant for a meal – and coincidently providing much amusement to the locals as we struggled with chopsticks – when a the police Sgt hailed us saying,”You are too late. They have all gone.” It took some time to solve this mystery. It turned out that as a jape a large part of the L.A.D. had made a mass visit to the local lady’s house which caused the rickshaw men to gather outside and make a protest. The police came and sorted it all out. I often wonder if the police Sgt was commiserating with us as we had missed it or thought that we were going to break it up.
A small query: The British other ranks had a bar named after a local brew – Anchor, complete with an Anchor flag. Does the Anchor bar still exist in the present Ghurka Transport Coy?
Driver training was removed to the Ghurka Depot at Sungei Patani. I went with a part of the L.A.D. in a column of vehicles on the coast road. The trip took several days, overnighting in camps en route. The Depot was on the site of a pre-war airstrip. The repair work was not onerous which left time to visit Penang and the area around the Depot. It was interesting to see the basic training system used for the Ghurkas as well as their religious rites. An odd thing for a R.E.M.E. man to say but the water at S.P. was the best I have ever tasted. Once, on the airstrip, I found the site of the Japanese M.I. room – bottles and phials scattered under a bush on the other side of the fence. Labouriously I climbed the fence and rooted about. I got the feeling that I was not alone, looked up and found myself nose-to-nose with two huge buffaloes. Adrenalin charged, the fence was cleared in one bound. When I looked back they had resumed grazing and were probably wondering what all the panic was about.
The training at the Depot finished and the detachment was sent to Serembam. The camp was on the airfield with many different units located around it. In respect of the R.E.M.E there was no one I knew: at least half of the V.Ms were Malays and I had become the spare “What’s it” at the wedding, doing odd jobs. One of these was flying in the courier plane that hopped the airstrips along Malaya to purchase stores at Singapore, the plane picking up and delivering people of all races as well as small packets. On one flight there was a crash helmet on an adjacent seat which I ignored but I soon found the reason for it: beneath was a beautiful scene of forested hills with an unseen turbulance. The plane dropped, I stayed at the same altitude and the plane collided with my head. I was too late to grab the helmet, an Air Force officer was smirking underneath it.
The Malay V.M.s were cheerful young men who were given time off to go to the mosque but the Imam reported absences and lateness. Enquries found that a temptress’ house lay between the camp and the mosque so I, a Christian, was made responsible that they got there. One assumes that they visited the irresistible on the way back as no more reports of absence were made.
Serembam had a curious atmosphere: the Sgts’ mess food funds had been overspent and frequently one sat to dine on tinned stew and wine of all things. A wit used to remark that all it needed was a cigar and we could call it Xmas. There was a fruit machine facing the bar. The caterer used to watch the machine and, at a given dial arrangement, used to leap over the bar, pushing other users away, saying “This is mine.” – which it rarely was. The Malay barman was the uncle of the mess servant at Batu Pahat and reminded me of things we had done there. It is a small world as we learn – often too late. I was volunteered to act as Father Christmas but managed to get out of it which was a good thing as the sucker who did it over-imbibed and fell out of the aeroplane and broke his arm to the cheers of all the spectators: Ho, Ho, Ho became Ooh. Ooh, Ooh.
Odd memories: A policeman showing me a photo of a British officer holding an MC. Written beneath was a declaration by the officer that the whole unit (Malay Signals) shared the award, naming the individual. Dear old Mina, a waitress, who kept her small coins in her EARS. Seeing once on a lonely road, a mural of two soldiers: one in jungle greens, the other in cavalry full dress. Beneath was written “Cherry Pickers”. Perhaps someone can explain its location.
While we had been detached the Coy had moved to Kluang Garrison to which we eventually returned to find that the L.A.D. was fully staffed with new faces. Life became “Normalized” in the Garrison and the usual routines fell into place but I felt that ex-Batu Pahaters were out of step in the new situation. Generally, life was pleasant enough. A bonus was that, using the railway, it was easy to go to Singapore, whereas from Batu one had to travel with local bus lines which gave a good introduction to the various peoples of Malaya.
Time passed and my tour came to an end. Down to Singapore to catch the UK bound flight. No uniforms allowed, just mufti. The call comes to board the plane and I am one of the first on and, seeing a good seat near the front I claim it. Later a middle-aged man joined me and we got into civil chat which was broken into by the Quarter Master addressing my companion as Air Marshal and requesting that I move to a seat at the rear. The Marshal said something as I passed him which may have been “Good try”. I was happy to be going home but a soldier could not have a better tour: a spell in sybaritic Hong Hong and then the wide-openness of Malaya: the best of both worlds.
Chas’s Service Record
RASC as VM 1946-51
REME as VM 1951-59
Art Veh 1959-69
F.E Lecture 1969-1991
now enjoying retirement.