Yester year memories

By David Howlett 56B

Peter Gripton, also of 56B, A’ Coy, a friend of many years and a prolific contributor to OBAN, has been at my heels for some years now, to write an article for the same magazine. “It only has to be a short one Dave,” he has repeatedly said to me – but what do you write about? Firstly I’m not the type of guy that writes articles – and I have this sort of sixth sense that there are many of you out there that get a bit tired of reading the stereotyped articles that regularly appear in OBAN. But none the less, I do admire the authors of such epistles, particularly for taking the time to write and submit the same – and yes; I do read the majority of them!

However, when I put the magazine down, I admit I always seem to say the same myself – “It’s the same old stuff again”.

So, I thought I’d have a go and try and do it differently -i.e. give the article a different slant -and see what comes from the old grey matter. I dread future ‘Letters to the Editor’, about what might be called a negative attitude -but worse still, perhaps, the multitude of literacy errors in the article – but who cares -I’ll have a go, Peter. And anyway, since I’m retired, any’ cock ups’ could be all explained away to old age and senile dementia. It is funny how you remember some things and forget others. But I can still see and recall the scene in our council house kitchen one tea-time (in those days, I used to have dinner at lunch-time and tea at dinner-time – in later life I got a commission and found that I had been doing it wrong all those years!), when I said I was going to join the Army. I was approaching 16 at the time. “You’re too young, you’re not joining the Army -and that’s that”, my Mum said. That would have been the final word in the majority of cases, but Dad chipped in with “If he wants to join the Army, let him join, it will do him good”.

Arborfield here we come!

Enough said, on the 28th of August 1956, I signed up in the Recruiting Office at Chatham on the standard ‘9 and 3’ year engagement, and I was on my way. Why the Army I ask myself? I’d always been nuts on the Navy and, having lived in a pub, a Whitbread house called ‘The Two Sawyers’, from 1944 until 1950 in Brompton which was within spitting distance of the two main gates of the Royal Naval Dockyard, Chatham – it begs the question. All the sailors and marines used to use our pub, and I always saw myself in one or the other of those two uniforms. At closing time, when Dad used to call time – “Come along you Toffs, please”, there was one sailor who used to get regularly pissed in the public bar. His ‘battle stations’ call to all and sundry going out the door was, “If you want to see the world join the Royal Navy”. That seemed a good enough reason for me to join the Sailors. The fact that I had a relatively poor education indicated that my career prospects in Civvy Street were negligible.

When I saw the offer of an Army 3-year trade apprenticeship, which in no way could I get outside, I jumped in with both feet. Admittedly I was the Army Cadet Force (ACF), and the fact that my elder brother had joined the Army Apprentices at Harrogate two years earlier, this probably sealed my fate. We both started life as electricians, destined for the Royal Engineers he, as Electrician Machinery and Heavy Plant, and me as an Electrician Vehicle and Plant. Subsequently, I ended up as a Radar Mechanic in REME and Tony in ‘D’ Squadron SAS, what career planning!

What made you join? Have you ever thought about it? Because for all of us, it changed our lives completely, mostly for the good, I think. Do you remember the first day of your service? I don’t, the first days of my service are a complete blank to me. Drawing my kit etc. seemed never to have happened, but I still have a good laugh when I see the stereotype Army film, which always plays on those ‘first moments’ in a soldier’s life. It was definitely life for me, as I seemed to have lingered on until the 24th May 1996, ’40 years in the cake!

I still have the photo…

I still have the photo, taken in October 1956 in the barrack room I shared with the lads of HQ Coy. All scrubbed clean and looking happy in two regulation rows with the apprentice Corporal and the National Service Education Sgt (who lived in the bunk) sitting centrally like two mother hens.

In our group was a lad called Flatman, who was reportedly the smallest chap ever, and since, to join the British Army; there was nothing of him in size or stature but he gave as good as he got and never had any trouble. No doubt now he is a large six-footer! What I can’t work out all these years later is why there were only 9 of us in that room, or ‘spider’, as they were affectionately called. I do know that later on, after we all left Junior Div, I recall there were 17 to a room. How did we live with 17 to a room, eh? All that ‘friggin’ in the rigging’ and farting after lights-out, which caused no end of hysterics until the Sgt poked his head around the bunk door and muttered with authority that – “Dress parades tomorrow night may be a f* * ** * * good idea” -followed by UTTER SILENCE.

It was all bullshit and obedience in that first year. You were not allowed out of barracks then. I recollect we only got five shillings a week of which about 60% went on cleaning kit. Blanco, boot polish, dusters and Zebo for the ‘Cenotaph’ – the old coal-stove in the centre of the room, from which every spec of ash and dust was removed in the morning before parade. Then the whole thing was polished with Zebo and copious amounts of elbow grease, until it gave off this pewter type glow all over only to be buggered up again that evening when we lit the stove and made toast over the open door at the top! What kept us sane? Why didn’t we suffer from a ‘Junior Div Syndrome’ (JDS)? This, by today’s standards, should have evolved and struck us down in future years. You can see the paper headlines of yesteryear “Young soldiers struck down by JDS – MOD will not payout any compensation”.

My mind boggles when I recollect what we got up to. Out of bed at Reveille and making bed-blocks with NAAFI cardboard inserts, measured to the nearest millimetre (did we have them then?) with a ruler. Just before parade there were young men standing on ‘dry scrubbers and bumpers’, being shot back and forth over the floor to give a shine you could shave in. And god forbid any twat that should then walk on the floor without having some type of cloth wrapped around his boots. Don’t forget, we had the old Ammo Boots then, with thousands of studs in. Shaving bass-broom handles and tables 6ft GS with Gillette safety razor blades to give the ‘white wood effect’. Then we would polish a bloody bucket -used for rubbish at all other times – with Brasso, so at the time of room inspection it resembled a large Georgian sterling-silver goblet. Were we all mad? No, we were just ‘conditioned’ most of our generation would say ‘for the better’ I think but looking back in retrospect, I think it was a good grounding; but for what, I can’t quite put my finger on that at this time!

What sticks in your mind…

For those who experienced it all what sticks in your mind now? Well, all of the above of course, but once in a while I get a waft of a smell that hits my taste buds, then smacks my silenced brain cells of the past into recall. It’s the combined smell of pressed uniforms, bulled boots and polished brass buttons; it is the smell that greeted you when walking into any barrack room prior to a big parade. Remember the ‘button-stick’, mention that today and what you used to do with it, and people would think you were a demented cousin of Ken Dodd! I couldn’t drive a button-stick very well either, I always ended up getting Brasso on my web belt from the brasses on the back, which naturally got me ‘extras’ on the subsequent parade inspection.

What wouldn’t I give to jump into a ‘time-machine’ and just go back to see it all just once again, just to poke my head into the barrack room to savour the ambience and atmosphere. One incident I will always remember was a barrack room kit inspection, one of my mates had not cleaned his mug properly (remember the one pint white tea mug?). He was told to hold it up to show the Sgt who promptly hit it with the end of his drill stick (the end with the brass knob on). Of course it shattered, and the lad was left with just the ring handle of the mug on his finger, a barbaric act, but hilarious when I think back and picture the incident in my mind.

The pathetic look on my mate’s face said it all.

Nowadays we all hear, “If only they all had to do National Service, we would not have the problems we have today”. I contend that three years in the Apprentices’ School in the fifties was a degree more taxing than National Service, well that’s my belief; because I shared barrack rbqms with National Service guys after ‘passing out’ in 1959, and life was a doddle.


Being tipped out of bed after lights-out, when Senior Div came back from the NAAFI was the most common ritual, funny really, when you think that alcohol was not available in the NAAFI to any apprentices, only soft drinks and cordial-tainted milk. Yet all the offenders showed all the signs of over indulged lager louts at the time. Sliding the plank where, when the Seniors wanted ‘some fun’, they would grab a ‘Jeep’, blindfold him, lay him flat on a “Table 6 ft GS flat” and run him around the spider corridors until he was completely disorientated. Then they would tip him out of a window, onto the lawn about 4 foot below. Completely harmless physically, but mentally mind-blowing.

If the bunk Sgt was not getting his fill from life and wanted some fun he would find excuses to have dress parades at night. “5 minutes PT kit”, “10 minutes best kit”, “15 minutes bed blocks ” (your bed had already been made down for sleeping, on return from the tea meal). So what kept us sane? God knows, perhaps it was the thought that “our time would come”, but to be honest, I do not think our lot were that devious and depraved when we reached Senior Div. Life for apprentices certainly got better as the years progressed. You could not phone home to complain either. Albeit, Bell had long since invented the telephone, but to my knowledge we never used them, because very few had a phone at home.

God bless my nan…

Without fail, every Saturday she would send me a parcel, which usually arrived on the Wednesday afternoon. In that parcel, always wrapped in brown paper, tied with hemp string, with the knots sealed with red sealing-wax was always a square of bread pudding, cut up into squares with lashings of sugar all over; a 2/6d postal order and a packet of 5 Woodbines, together with a letter with all the news from home. I don’t know how many times I read the letters after receiving them, they were like a soothing literary medication that cured all evils. Needless to say my ‘pit space’ would always attract ‘visitors’ on Wednesday afternoons – it was the whiff of fresh bread pudding with cinnamon that did that, I’m sure.

The rest of my time as an apprentice was a rich mixture of experience and fun. I really enjoyed the sport, who would have thought, if they know me now as a portly and grey haired mature retiree, that I was the Army junior featherweight boxing champion at 7 stones 7 pounds. At least they must have fed me well, eh? Enough for now, I’ve run out of steam. My best regards go to all mates of the past and I hope that this story has triggered a few treasured memories from yesteryear. Next time you have a cup of tea, think of the size of that ‘Mug, Tea, White, One Pint’ and wonder how did we manage to drink all of that bromide tea?

PS. It did NOT stop me ‘Friggin’ in the rigging’ – Cheers

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