The Secret Regiment
Memories of National Service with the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment
By John Perry
There is a valid reason for my strange title, having been in and served as a Sixteenth of Footer for two years; my reasons will become clear as you read on. On attaining the age of 18, my thoughts were generally not on joining the Army! But sure enough just after my birthday a summons came to attend the Medical Centre at St Albans, St Peters Street if my memory is correct. There the lads — as we were, came to be assessed for our suitability as soldiers, although we had not the slightest inkling of just what was in store, I can remember being handled by people to whom I had not been introduced. Not that they would have been allowed to handle me like that even if we had been introduced! After much prodding and feeling we were assessed as to our grades, mine was A1, although proud at the time, little did I guess just what this would lead to.
A summons to Colchester
Then one day there dropped on my mat a summons to go to Colchester, to join the Essex regiment for training, where the heck was Colchester? Well I was due for a shock in that department! The letter said between 10 and 4 so I duly set off for deepest Essex. There were just two of us when I eventually arrived at the station, we were greeted with where the hell have you been, and my reply to what I later came to know as a Corporal was —coming here! —— Clang! My first mistake, coming here—-Corporal—he said. I was sufficiently intelligent then to know menace when I heard it, so I said parrot fashion, coming here Corporal, first lesson and still at the station! The reason we found out later for this exchange was that the other members of the intake had already got their kit and were at that time looking like the proverbial sacks tied in the middle, as they tried on those lovely itchy hairy new BDs (battledress).
Sharing with 16 strangers
The date was August the 10th 1950; the place to be my new home, Meanee barracks. I could imagine Napoleonic troops being imprisoned there! In reality I suppose it was First World War vintage. The next shock: having to share with about 16 strangers, we had to sleep in the same room! After being on one’s own it was I suppose a bit of an adventure. The next thing to learn was that the knife and fork used all my life so far and called just that, became eating irons! Then off to the dining area to see the hordes all eating together. One of the new intake dropped his plate, the resultant roar, which ensued, made me ever so careful not to drop anything in the dining hall, everyone looked at you to make things even worse.
On our return one of the new boys crossed the parade ground. When he got to the middle there came what I can only describe as a scream, we had now met the RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major). His name, for other unfortunates like us who may read this, was WO1 Gilchrist, and the parade ground belonged to him! The only thing that saved this poor unfortunate lad was the fact that it was intake day and he had been sent across by someone who should have known better. How could one individual make so much noise? The corporal at the station had whispered —- compared to the RSM.
Better than clean
We were very lucky in that one of our intake had gone to a public school, where he was in the Army Cadets, this experience was invaluable in the preparation of kit. This was another shock to the system - clean we knew but this had to better than clean. This was I suppose character forming. Now I can see it but not then. Every moment was spent sitting on our beds polishing something. This was supposed to be spare time, we certainly didn’t find that there was much of that at first. The room consisted of blokes from all over the place. Not many names come to me now except for one, Curly Joel, he had spent some time in the Navy as a boy sailor and seemed very worldly-wise compared to the rest of us.
Sleep – or lack of it!
There seemed to be a lot of time spent looking at something called part two orders. There also loomed large in our lives a thing called Fire Piquet, an excuse for us to have a night’s sleep interrupted! The next day seemed to take an eternity to get to bedtime and make up for the loss of sleep. While getting to sleep one night we all got nicknames, mine was Tiny. As you can guess that I was not! There was talk also of one of the other groups having to give a Regimental Scrub to some poor unfortunate. At this time most people only bathed once a week anyway.
We belonged to the Army
Our time now was spent learning to march; we also learned that the Army owned us, that is what our Corporal told us. He was Canadian that much I can remember, the sergeant’s name has also gone, with my weekly loss of brain cells I suppose!
The question came up one day concerning leave, this we had heard about from the old sweats that had been in for a fortnight longer than us, they seemed so skilled in the arts of being a soldier, later our turn came when we were just as bad as them. When he could stop laughing our Corporal said that we would be let out when the Army thought we were smart enough, in about six weeks, now we understood the bit about us belonging to the Army.
Bayonet practice and hay fever
There is a piece of real estate in Colchester called Friday Woods; there we were instructed in the arts of crawling around in the mud! This seemed quite a laugh until the realisation dawned that the kit we crawled in had to be cleaned afterwards, by us! The hardest part of the training was bayonet practice. The sergeant had a stick with a ring on the end through which we were supposed to stick our bayonets. If we missed he used the other end, which had a padded knob, yes that’s right he hit you with it as you tried to dodge — in vain most times. One of the squaddies had done the training umpteen times, he had hay fever. This was no problem until the crawling through the grass. When I left to go to my regiment he was still there; we supposed that he could pass in the winter.
The passing out parade
Can you imagine our sheer incredulity one day to see a Soldier cry, this was a chap called Chippy, that’s what he was, a regimental carpenter, at that time he was by far the oldest man serving in the British Army, he stood outside the gates with the tears streaming down his face, he had nowhere to go apparently– now I know why, but then we all wanted to get out. The standards of us odd—bods began to resemble something like a soldierly group, the first time that we could hear our feet going down in unison was quite something, this however had its down side. Our expertise was bringing us nearer and nearer to meeting RSM Gilchrist. This is called RSMs parade, he conducted this from a high podium, although about a hundred yards away we could all feel his eyes on us, then came the scream, number eighty six in the front row, take his name. The ecstasy when he took the name of some other poor individual was quite tangible, perhaps kids today would not have that fear, but we sure did, we found out what he did with that pace stick at this time, the right markers seemed to get a lot of his sharp tongue. Now there was the Passing out parade to look forward to, ones relatives could attend, I can’t imagine anything as embarrassing as falling foul of the RSM when ones Mum and Dad are present, we always waited for a Mum to shout, you leave my little boy alone!It never happened of course but what a picture it conjures up.
The funniest man in the army
Then came the transfer to Hydrabad Barracks in what was called a holding company, still with the Essex Regiment, this for a Fortnight while our fates were being decided by the Army authorities. After throwing their dice, we were sent to the School of Infantry at Warminster, now we joined the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regt, our first meeting with the funniest man in the Army— Sergeant Major Cassidy, the things he called men while taking a parade were hilarious, one of his favourites was—– bicycle head! He really was like a Dad to us new entrants, he seemed severe but really was not, everyone remembers Cass. We were put into four sections: Assault pioneers, Anti- tank, Vickers machine gun, and my lot Three-inch mortars. My Platoon CO was Mr Bacon of whom more later, and my sergeant was called Crosskeys. The 17-21st Lancers were at the school also, their cap badge of skull and crossbones always appealed to us callow youths!
Their eyes never missed a trick
The parades for the regiments at the school were something to see, every regiment in the Army and all in their dress uniforms, Kilted Scotties, Dragoons, Fusiliers with Hackles on their Berets, over all this colour and spectacle, the figure of Sergeant Major Cowley, of the Coldstream guards then third in Succession to RSM Brittain and RSM Copp in the British army. One day while he was taking a parade, two squaddies were in the bread store, which overlooked the parade ground; they did something that caught his eye! On being invited to join him they were given a lesson in drilling, he could go at light infantry pace, his pace stick making sure that they took the correct stride. After that if anyone was in the bread store then the window stayed firmly shut! The thing that always amazed me was the age of these old RSMs, was it that we were so young? Their eyes never missed a trick. The only thing that used to get on my nerves was telling people that the Bedfs and Herts really were in the British army! One day we were in our NAFFI, partaking of tea and a wad when a Guardsman pointed to my shoulder flashes and said —-never heard of them are they a new lot? When he found out that we were the 16th of foot he nearly had a heart attack, that made us older than his Regiment, also we could match him battle honours and all! I shall return to this theme later.
The Salisbury plain now became our playground, we were out most days training and later as we got more proficient we gave displays for visiting groups of Officers, they used us to get practice being mortar platoon COs. We also took part in a large exercise, which covered all of Europe , this got us attacked by the Seaforth highlanders one night, and they were on our side! Their screams scared us never mind the enemy. While on the exercise we arrived at a place called Yoxter, dig in came the cry, each spadeful filled with water as soon as it was dug out! This was in between the large rocks everywhere, also we went through the Cheddar gorge in our Bren gun carriers, what the natives thought I couldn’t imagine.
Oil in the dipstick hole
While on the subject of Bren Gun carriers, one of our drivers when learning was given orders to do an oil-change, the old oil was taken out with the bren gun carrier on the ramp, he then drew the new oil from the stores, right said the sergeant get the new oil in. The other members went to NAAFI break, on their return, the driver was missing, a loud shouting was set in motion, Oh dear said the sergeant my little boy is missing! After some minutes a head popped up from the back of the carrier. Where have you been? —- Nowhere Sarge, I’ve been here all the time, — doing what? —– Putting the new oil in. ——where? ——There —–pointing, exploding Sergeant finally sees the funny side; he had been trying to put the oil in the dipstick hole!Netheravon, now there’s a name to remember! The Mortar platoon went there and we never found out just why, the whole camp had different regiments in residence which made the mounting of the fire piquet a colourful occasion all the different badges and flashes. Often when we were going on to the ranges there would be Alsatian dogs left at the roadside by the RAF police, we presumed they were in Stay mode! Also the Parachute Regiment had a Drop training area there.
About this time 1951 we were all called on parade very suddenly, as our names were called, sections were formed, some went to Germany , some to join a large contingent to travel to Crowborough, there was a rumour that 19 was the age to join the Crowborough group. This is the time that it struck home that we were not just playing at Soldiers, the Crowborough group were to join the Gloucesters, they of course went to Korea , we subsequently heard that many had been killed in action there, that really hit us hard. There was not ever a truth given to the rumour about being 19, but now and again I do wonder just how many had to go to Korea , also how fortunate we were that stayed behind.
My platoon Commander was now Captain Bowring, and training had a different edge to it, we even trained with 80mm American Mortars, the bombs for 80mm mortars were streamlined a lot better than ours, while the infantryman’s 2 inch drainpipe had a job to get 200 yards but the American equivalent went about 800 yards. They were however jealous of our Bren gun Carriers, they had only jeeps, the Anti tank platoon had the Oxford carrier a dirty great big Canadian effort, we always were green eyed when they rode past.While at the School of infantry we got a taste of bull in its most exquisite form, I refer of course to the Admin! After scrubbing everything in sight we were inspected by a French General, he went past leaving a most lovely smell in his wake, now I suppose it is aftershave but at that time our minds were working overtime!
A rough crossing to Cyprus
Now we got the call to saddle up, Cyprus was the intended destination, some of us were picked as a baggage party, Curly Joel had done some service on the HMS Illustrious, (the old one that fought so gallantly in world war two) waiting at Portsmouth most of us were lost at some time or other but Curly always knew the way. The Marines mess was our billet, once again came the question, and just who the hell are you lot? This was lovely, our regiments were some of the first Marines was our reply; this was disbelieved until someone went to find out, after this we got on all right with the Boot necks. They called us pongos as did the sailors. Back in the 16 hundreds the first Marines were taken from the Bedfordshire’s the Hertfordshire’s the Middlesex Suffolk’s and Norfolk and Northamptonshire regiments. Now they are incorporated again as the Anglian regiments, History repeating itself? We sailed on Nov 5th 1951 for Cyprus and arrived on the 11th—The accommodation aboard was in hammocks, these were suspended on large hawsers, in the Hangars and there were two Battalions on board, the Beds and Herts plus the Coldstream Guards, when I look at the photos now it looks unbelievable. The weather going through the Bay of Biscay was really rotten, lorries were lost off the deck and they were chained down, but the seas came over the flight deck! I spent the trip on deck near the Funnel, with water and dry biscuits that Baggage party really paid off in the advice from the old sweats department. Down below, even some of the long time sailors were seasick, I hope some of you that were there do not think about it too much, I do like boats however in spite of all the trauma at the time, one of the chaps was so ill that we had to put into Gibraltar to get him to hospital. So I’ve been there but not on the ground so to speak, we did get a glimpse of Malta in the distance, and Crete I think, they said that we had gone round the storm, goodness knows what its like to get in the middle of one?
On our arrival at Cyprus we were met by the band of the Scots Guards, we duly marched to Karaolos camp Famagusta, to the accompaniment of bagpipes; we found that the slow pace took a bit of getting used to. Famagusta is a place I remember for churches; there must be one for every turn in the road, the walls around the harbour are impressive, we often walked around them when going to the town. This was also an eye opener for a young chap on the grinding poverty in the world, there was a Brick making business going on at the edge of the camp, I saw my first Mohammedans there, with their baggy trousers. Their whole life seemed to revolve around making—- not many bricks each day —when they would disappear as quickly as they arrived, we would nod and use our newly learned language skills, I seem to remember it was two words which meant good day! As every person knows an old Liberty ship the Porlock hill broke her back on the beach at Golden sands Cyprus , if you have a picture of this then sure enough, you’re an old Cyprus veteran. We did hear that CSM Palmer was mentioned in dispatches for his part in the attempted rescue, I was on guard and in the morning and had missed the drama; yes I do have a picture of this event! We were ready for our next posting; there appeared on the orders of the day an instruction on how to challenge an Arab when on guard duty! Don’t ask me after all these years to recall it, the only things we ever really learned were too rude to be put down here!
Beer, Blanco cigarettes and boot polish
We got to Egypt by courtesy of RAF transport Command; the planes were Vickers Valletta or flying pigs, as they were affectionately known. Our intended destination was Gothic camp, El Ballah, by the water plant, which we spent many happy hours defending; this however brought us quite a shock. A severe sandstorm raged for about two days, the fine sand even got into lockers; the poor devils on stag (guard duty) were issued with goggles, it seemed impossible to go anywhere, finding the Cookhouse was quite an adventure. A deep depression descended on the camp as the realisation dawned that the NAAFI only sold, beer Blanco cigarettes boot polish and not a lot else, a rumour started that strike action was rumbling just below our tolerance level. The rumour said that a deputation went to see the Padre, he got things moving and we got new films, cakes, soft drinks and a general re-stocking of the shelves in the NAAFI, this is one thing that no one really knows for sure, would someone have been shot for mutiny?
It seems funny now but then we were on active service, Guards were conducted with live Ammo, we never discovered who put a round through the Guardhouse roof one morning at the time a guard was dismounting? Then there was the time that those who controlled our destiny, decided that we would get on board aircraft and fly around, to see how long it took to move a Battalion, sandstorm time again, so we then spent the night in old goat pens! The next day we were visited by a General, to this day I can only think of Sir Brian Horrocks, he congratulated us on our patience in a difficult circumstance, it was the only time a general ever spoke to me, usually I suppose we were just dots on their Relief maps at Whitehall ! Just to stop us getting bored, a wit devised a scheme whereby all the Battalion got a chance to show its mettle to the world, it was said that it followed an argument in the mess over extra brandies that the modern soldier was at that time softer than his predecessors. From the Gothic camp gates, in full battle order, some five miles down the road to the Sweetwater canal, across on a small raft, into action across very hot sand, fire at the targets on the range all monitored. Back to camp, on the run and trot system, then over an assault course all to be completed in a certain time, when I think of it now, It did stop us getting bored, or up to mischief, we were nearly always on guard so the boredom threshold was very low anyway.
Winning a competition
I did have a great piece of luck however, there was a competition to go to a leave camp I was one of the lucky winners, two of us went to spend a week doing just what we liked in the confines of the camp. The camp was situated on Lake Timsah , one of the Great Bitter Lakes ; my companion came from a place in Herts called Buntingford, he could play darts like a dream, which means that we got free drinks as well for the week!
A bridge on the Suez Canal
Support Company at last got a chance to guard the bridge at El Firdan; on the Suez Canal this was a hand operated swing bridge, that we called Hand draulic! One mystery, where did the workers come from? To the horizon it seemed there was no habitation, but when a train was due then there they were, The bridge was worked with giant keys which fitted into, holes in the ground, lots of men then wound the keys round and round until the bridge was closed to shipping, a train—- Oil-fired then came over the bridge and off into the distance. Sometimes at night we sat on the bridge and sang to the ships, passing at that time people were emigrating to Australia , the ships were mostly Castle line. The Suez Canal always fascinated me with its Traffic lights for the ships; we were always told that the canal was 90 miles long 90 feet deep and 90 yards wide; when away at a distance the ships certainly looked impressive, real ships of the desert. One time a very large ship was stuck on a sandbank, the Caronia I think, when one of the many sandstorms abated there she was, a true Ship of the desert! My chief regret is not going to see the Pyramids; it was deemed unsafe for us to go out although I did get a look at some of the local sights like Moascar and Ismailia . The skies at night are one thing that I will always remember, the total blackness and what looked like a million stars even at 19 years of age it impressed me, another strange happening was watching the sun go down while mounting guard, I always thought that I could see the sun moving!
Time to go home
Now came the exiting news that my time had expired and it was time to get back home, the Army however had a final trick up its sleeve. Our trip to England again came under the Umbrella of RAF transport command; the planes being used were Hastings , some of which had serious defects, so we waited in a transit camp by the Airfield for the RAF to get its act together. On entering the Army originally, I had not been in long when my service was increased from 18 months to 2 years, giving me the impression that if this continued then I would never get out! We got back courtesy of Lancashire Airways in converted Lancaster bombers to Bovingdon, then on past Watford where I then lived! To London to get the train for Bedford, then the training camp for the Bedfs and Herts—to be told you will not be demobbed this week as you are a day late and we only discharge on a Thursday once a fortnight, when I said that I would keep quiet about the cock up it did not go down very well! You are still in the Army! How I loved that one, we had parades every day, this I think to show us old sweats a thing or two about life in the depot, we were however adept at skiving so all the little bolt holes in the Bedford depot were exploited to our advantage. We had many a run in with Mr Bremner, as Adjutant he had got us to contend with as well as his other duties, being less than keen didn’t help our cause at all.
The Hertfordshire Regiment TA
So my original National service of eighteen months became two years and two weeks! Then on to Port hill Hertford the depot of the Hertfordshire regiment T.A. to deposit our kit, then train to London to get a train back to Watford ! If the thought came that I was now out there came a further shock in the call to join the Hertfordshire Regt T.A. I had missed the summer camp for 1952 so thought that the three years meant just that, then came the news that it meant three camps not three years so my T.A. service covered four years. The first camp was near Amesbury Wilts, it rained a lot, the next two camps were at Tweseldown Racecourse near Aldershot , the evening parades were a chance to swing the lamp really; we could do a sand dance and had got our knees very brown.
The demise of the 16th Foot
Then came the demise of the 16th of foot, in the reorganisation of the Army, when I said to people that it was tragic, they gave me the same blank stare as when told that I did National Service. Since my Army service, I had only met one person that served in Egypt with me, sadly not one of my original roommates in Colchester , trying the National service Associations and Canal veterans was a waste of time, and then wonder of wonders the Wasp was mentioned. Hence the title, where had all those ex 16th of foot men gone– were they ashamed? Were they illiterate? The reasons all evaded me– then I got the Wasp, (the regimental magazine of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire regiments) bingo there was Curly Joel from Colchester all those years ago.
Does anybody else read The Wasp?
These are events as recalled by me, I hope that if it gets published that it jogs a few memories, or am I alone reading the Wasp? Since this history was published I have discovered that Mr Bacon my old platoon commander was not killed in Korea, so something good has come out of it after all, I only hope he was able to get over his sudden demise, My excuse is that once over with my military service, then I had no further contact with anyone in the Regiment. There also seems to be some confusion over the identity of the Sgt major mentioned while I served at the school of infantry, I refer of course to WO1 Cowley of the Coldstream guards, who was at that time R. S. M. for the whole of the School of infantry. The Wasp of course was the official magazine for the Bedfs and Herts Regiment, it is still published today for the Anglian Regiment; some things it seems stay the same thank goodness.
Ex 22395562 Pte Perry A. J. 3-Inch Mortarman
The Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment 1950 to 1952.
The Hertfordshire regiment T.A. 1952 to 1955