More fond memories of a great posting:
I was posted to the British Army Support Element at Quartier Chateau, Fontainebleau in September 1964, as the Armourer. Unlike any other of my postings I was also de facto custodian of the weapons as well as the maintainer of them. I often wondered why they had an Armourer. The entire weapons stock was less than a hundred items, mainly SMGs and pistols, with a few SLRs and a whole TWO 7.62mm Bren variants. Needless to say my work load was not that heavy and despite being QM staff I spent a lot of time with the LAD. That too was a small unit, an AQMS, a Sgt a Corporal [like me] and a couple of Craftsmen. All up our REME total was just half a dozen of us. The unit actually consisted mainly of RAOC and RASC clerks and drivers, an ACC team and a few Extra Regimental Activity general duty infantrymen to do the guard duties and odds and sods duties.
Oddly enough Fontainebleau, and also Versailles which then housed HQ NATO, attracted one of the highest rates of local overseas allowance paid to us soldiery. Initially as a single Corporal it increased my pay by about 80%, and when I married and brought my wife over it more than doubled my pay. As we were essentially in a tax free zone, booze and baccy were cheap and petrol was also cheap, albeit rationed somewhat, inasmuch that we were allowed 150 litres of petrol a month tax free, via pre paid coupons. I think the translated cost was about 1/6d a gallon. These were valid at any ESSO station in France. Any more and we had to pay French retail prices. That was expensive, at around the equivalent of eight shillings a gallon as opposed to the then four bob or so back in England. There was a thriving sell-on market for unused tax free coupons, for many didn’t use all the allowance. We lived literally five minutes walk from the Chateau and our car was not used all that much. Fontainebleau had super shops and a twice weekly open air market at prices so low it was hard to believe. To go to Camp Guynemer, the actual site of HQ AFCENT was about a ten minute drive or a half hour or so walk through the grounds of Napoleon’s Palace. There we were allowed to use the US PX and Commissary.
Paris was just forty miles and an hour away by train.
All in all, it was the most idyllic posting one could imagine. I had a good trade going with Officers who needed their sporting guns maintained, and I was making a little money on the side. Like most Armourers I was a good shot and was invited to serve on the HQ AFCENT team. This was almost dominated by US Army and Air Force guys and I forged several lifelong friendships with Americans, that even today, forty five years on, are still vibrant. I also joined the USAF [Europe] sky diving team and learned to master the good old Para-Commander ‘chute. I did warn you, it WAS an idyllic posting.
I did sometimes wonder how on earth Britain forged an Empire and win her wars? As part of HQ AFCENT, we were predominantly admin types as opposed to combat servicemen at that time. However, as in all military organisations, we had to have drills, stand to’s, practice alerts and all that sort of thing. I have already stated that I was the sole custodian of firearms for the British Army Element, and as such, in the event of them being required I was responsible for issue and control. These pre advertised alerts were always due to start on a Monday and last for a week. This entailed full defensive status, with personal weapons being issued. I naturally checked with my Quartermaster as to what arrangements were being made for weapons issue, and as to when he wanted them issued. “Don’t worry about it lad. Just give every officer and enlisted man one of these and note in the ledger that you have done so.” I was handed a sheaf of white cards, each about the size of a credit card.
It read “FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS EXERCISE IT IS TO BE ASSUMED THAT THE BEARER IS ARMED WITH HIS PERSONAL WEAPON” and was signed by the Senior British Officer, a Colonel.
All over Fontainebleau were soldiers, airmen and the odd sailor and marine, of all nationalities, wandering about overtly armed to the teeth, except the Brits. We had dinky little white cards. The only armed Brits were RMP, who were always armed anyway and the visible gate guard at the Chateau. One of these episodes, soon after we were married, totally destroyed any credibility the British Army had in Carol’s eyes. She wrote “BANG” on the back of mine.
Every year it was deemed that all soldiers in the unit had to range qualify with their issued personal weapon and also the rifle if it were not their assigned weapon. The only NCO with any idea of how to run a range was me, for it had “Always been the Armourer’s job”, as I was told. Fortunately a few of the Infantry “GDs” were quite good and we ran a week long course each year at a nearby French Army Range. Back then soldiers still had to shoot for their pay so it was a well attended exercise and I was a popular NCO, at least just as long as I could zero their weapons for them.
It was also mandatory for all the staff to attend a one week camp under canvas for ‘military training’. It was held on the bank of the Loire River, near a small town of Gien, in itself quite near to Orleans. As all could not attend the same week this ‘camp’ ran for a month, in July and I would stay out there the entire duration. I found out that the Armourer was also “always the Skill at Arms man”. Lord it was a tough month … breakfast served by the ACC lads and some desultory arms training until lunch at about 1300. Then I could either lunch in the mess tent or wander into town. A suitable siesta would follow, and then even tide. The bars and cafes of Gien were delightful and the locals, especially the young ladies, were very friendly. I believe a couple of Anglo French marriages germinated during these camp periods. I know that our soldiers have at times had bad press as to behaviour off duty but in Gien they always behaved very well. Indeed overall at HQ AFCENT we were pretty well behaved.
Back at Fontainebleau, whilst single there were always ad hoc runs into Paris at weekends via the Nuffield trust bus. I didn’t indulge too often, I really like Fontainebleau and would explore it and the magnificent forest that surrounds the town as much as could. I’d try to avoid bars and such that my fellow soldiers used, not because I was a snob, but I wanted to properly learn French and going to solely local joints was a good way of doing it.
I also had regular monthly trips to a place called Soissons, the other side of Paris from us, to 227 Signal Squadron. There I did the monthly arms condition check, usually staying a couple of days to ensure all modifications were made, if and when needed. I’d book out a Land Rover, or if I was lucky, a Ford Zephyr staff car, and drive myself to Soissons. En route, in a village whose name I no longer recall was a café where I would always stop for a sandwich jambon [ham baguette] and a coffee. I’d always travel in No.2 Dress and my REME side cap and was treated like a friend on every visit. I suppose the gift of a carton of cigarettes each time helped. They had a juke box the like of which I had never seen before, nor since. It had a glass front with two six inch circular holes cut in it. One inserted one’s arms through these holes, selected a record from the pile, put it on the turntable and set the needle arm. Upon removing one’s arms a 50 centime piece was inserted in a slot and the record was played. Absolutely ingenious and quite probably home made.
When I married in ’66 and brought Carol out to live we found that most of our social life was around Americans. We rented a small flat in a private house in town, where the other flat was occupied by a US Airman, Joe Connelly and his wife Cathy, who was from Liverpool and had been, until her marriage, a WRAF Corporal. We immediately bonded into a lifelong friendship, sadly now only with Cathy since Joe’s death in 2010. I have a soft spot for our colonial cousins and we have visited almost every corner of the USA visiting friends made either back then or though other friendships made via Joe and Cathy.
All in all I have very fond memories of France, of Fontainebleau and my time there. It was probably the most contented period of my life. Sadly it all came to an end in 1967 when De Gaulle pulled France out of NATO and our HQ AFCENT was moved to Brunsumm in Holland, near Maastricht, where I believe it still is today. They decided that once moved there was no longer a need for an Armourer so in April 1967 I found myself as Depot Armourer at the RMP Depot in Chichester. That too proved to be a wonderful posting, but that’s another story for another time.