Ken’s Army career.
This history is different to the others available in this section in that Ken has written his own experiences of his National Service of the 1950’s, and I have; in order to fit with the standard format used in the other histories, completed a synopsis of a very detailed and lengthy epistle. Should you wish to read his effort in full then use the Contact Facility on this site and Ken will be pleased to email you a copy.
After spending nearly all the war in Southwick, Sussex along with thousands of other evacuated kids, it was in 1952 he received his National Service call up papers. As mentioned elsewhere in the other histories this was a mandatory period of service in Army, Navy, or Air force, for a period of two years; or three if you fancied becoming a “Regular”, with its greater choice of jobs and possibilities of promotion. The pay was also a bit better. Ken opted for the Army and becoming a regular. Now Ken’s story.
After a local medical I received orders to report to Buller Barracks in Aldershot where most RASC, (my choice), conscripts were trained. Put into a single storey barrack block with twenty beds, me and 19 other “new soldiers” had to adapt fairly quickly to a way of life we had not experienced before. A new vocabulary was one of the first changes. “Blanco”, “spit and polish2,” “rifle oil”, “pull through’s” and worst of all, “Bull”.. and “Jankers”…. (Spit and polish and punishment for not spitting hard enough or performing some minor or non-existent infraction of the rules).
Next came the issue of our uniform and kit. No one bothered to check us for size. We just walked along in a line and had items of clothing chucked at us. We caught most of it and once inside it; within a few hours of our arrival, us rookies all looked the same even if we were all individuals inside. The main difference was we were not Mr’s anymore, I was now S/22821700. Private Emmons. K.J.
The resident Medical Officer gave us a thorough examination and all the required jabs. We lined up like jugs with both hands on hips and were stabbed simultaneously from both sides. It was not always the big guys that sailed through without any apparent side effects.
“Buller” was a testing and grooming camp for potential non-commissioned officers and for that reason all the barrack room drills were very strict and were in addition to other tests designed to see if we were suitable for promotion. The other area for being “broken in” was the Parade Ground. We had to learn to obey orders instinctively and react to a single word of command. This was whilst being bombarded with torrents of abuse from the Drill Sergeants’.
The squad corporals in the billet were pernickety to the point of exasperation. Demanding; and getting, precisely laid out kit on precisely made beds. If not satisfied we were blasted with “you ‘orrible little man”, as your bed was lifted and tipped up. “Do it properly next time!” After several attempts we managed to get it right “first time” but for the next 6 weeks any deviation from the norm was jumped on; and how! In retrospect this period provided a valuable learning curve and helped to shape our career future. Nearly all of us were successful come the final Passing Out Parade.
We visited the rifle range and took it in turns to fire at the large targets on angle iron frames whist the others operated the targets up and down and placed the markers whilst sheltered by a substantial concrete parapet in a concrete pit. I enjoyed the firing part but not the bit where a round hit the frame or concrete and dug out a chunk of clay, which ricocheted back.
On completion of training I was posted to a Command Supply Depot at Shorncliffe, near Dover, which dealt mainly with food movement to other units. Life was easier here without the bull and bed inspections. My duties were clerical which I enjoyed except when given Guard Duty. In the evenings we sat in the canteen or if lucky, with female company, we went dancing or to the pictures.
After 6 weeks we were given a week’s leave. I remember this day, as a terrible train crash had occurred at Harrow and Wealdstone with two local trains colliding and the down express ploughing into the wreckage. we moved slowly past this terrible carnage where 120 people had died.
Leave soon over and I returned to Dover and my old job, but only a few weeks later I was posted to Germany. With absolutely no German I struggled a little with the language. “Hauptbanhof was a train station and Krankenhaus was a hospital, not an asylum”. I spent four great months in Hanover where I worked in an office with two German Ladies. Heide and Jutta were both nice and fortunately spoke excellent English. Having never been to a foreign country before I took advantage of seeing the sights. We met up with some of the local ladies and found most of them able to speak English.
I spent some time in other interesting parts of Germany such as Sennelager, Bielefeld, Wunstorf and Hamelin among them. I was lucky enough to get a record played on Family Favourites radio programme on Sunday lunch time. Jean Metcalf read out my message and played Jimmy Young singing Unchained Melody.
Back in the UK another posting awaited. This time it was serious. We were off to Korea; where although the war was officially over the UNC were charged with ensuring the complete cessation of hostilities until a peaceful settlement was agreed. 63 years later there is still no settlement! We were issued with brand new 303″ rifles in wooden boxes, all covered in thick grease. We had the 28 days transit by sea to have them ready for combat on arrival. We travelled by an ex German ocean liner named Asturias and learned it had been partially sunk twice. In a cabin with four others we noted the black line just above the ports which showed the depth the vessel had sunk to previously. Except for barging into a Alexandra Nursing officers quarters to find all six of them starker’s. (A hasty retreat by an embarrassed Lance Corporal), and a very stormy Bay of Biscay, the abiding memory is of an exciting trip along the Suez canal with all its sights. We sailed on to Ceylon (Sri Lanka.) were I was able to have a short trip ashore and a ride on a Rickshaw.
Next port of call was Hong Kong. We saw both Kowloon on the mainland and via a one penny ride on the Star ferry, Hong Kong Island. Whilst anchored in Kowloon harbour we were surrounded by bum boats with locals peddling their wares. One boat had a girl who would strip off naked and dive for a silver coin thrown in the water. The Navy guys, (not the army) would wrap a copper coin in silver paper for the same trick. The girl shook her fist and shouted something?
Our final destination was Pusan at the southern end of South Korea. Our first sight on shore was a mass of white crosses marking the sites of thousands of deaths on both sides as the North Korean and Chinese communist fought their way nearly to Pusan. A massive UN seaborne assault a little further up the coast had; at considerable cost, forced the enemy to retreat to the 38th parallel, where they remained, across a 100 yard strip, and still do now. 142,000 US troops and 17,000 other nationals died during this time.
Sent to a temporary camp we were instructed to hand over our lovingly cared for new rifles and given used ones in their place. We were not happy with the exchange! We were also given a baptism of battlefield experience. We had to cross a huge rock strewn area under barbed wire. “Keep your heads down” we were told, loudly, and did not need to be shouted at twice when we discovered two Vickers machine guns were firing across the area. With allegedly controlled explosions detonated around us we were very pleased to get across safely. What a welcome!
We were part of the 26th Commonwealth Division, comprised mainly of Polish, French, Canadian and several other nationalities. The Americans were of course also in evidence. We were transported by train from Pusan to Choksong, just north of Seoul and very close to the 38th Parallel which as mentioned was the demarcation line that still exists to this day. This was to be our base for the entire period of our tour of South Korea.
Our original accommodation was in 4 man tents, just about, these were heated by a Pot Bellied stove with a flue that went through a hole in the roof. Consequently many tents went up in flames. The petrol was turned on and was lit with a match and the heat was essential to combat the sub zero Korean winter temperatures. After washing in stove warmed water we threw it outside, and it soon became ice. Hot food was a treat but holding out your mess tin for fatty bacon and egg, you very soon found both of them solid and the egg turned blue!
We had to keep the camp area illuminated at night in case North Korean soldiers infiltrated, as they often did. We were part of a large sector containing 25 other camps and with 15 cut-in-half fifty gallon drums filled with petrol and set alight in our area the total must have been in hundreds. How many gallons of petrol were there burnt in the 15 months I was there? It was not over a pound a litre in 1954.
The North Koreans and Chinese forces were a constant menace despite the fact the war was supposed to be at stalemate. As guard commander I relieved a watch tower lad for a few minutes. Idly swinging the searchlight from side to side I was very surprised when a bullet struck the tower steel just above my head; and very pleased to see the lad return to relieve me. If ever we fired back at night we may have found blood in the morning, but never a body.
Our local transport was by US Huey helicopters and we had to get used to jumping out whilst they were at hover as it was too risky to set right down. Some of us were invited to visit a US Marines camp and were picked up by Jeep. The entertainment was great and they gave us a very different choice of foods. Their metal trays had six separate compartments and you should have seen their faces when we invited them back to our very basic food and one mess can to contain everything. A visit to the American PX; the equivalent of our NAAFI required a different password each time. Mostly we were not challenged, but on one occasion a bullet was fired over our heads. They were a bit trigger happy!
One of my daily tasks was to call all the English camps and inquire if they had any casualties to report, then relay the information to the American HQ. My worst task was to respond to a call, which could occur anytime, day or night, for a soldier to be returned home ASAP. The reason could be a family bereavement, serious sickness or a difficult birth. I had carte blanch to interrupt any other ongoing calls and make contact. Others would take steps to get the soldier home as quickly as was possible.
Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Wrote Noel Coward. In the summer we were instructed to start work at 04.30 and finish at 11.00hrs to avoid the hottest part of the unbearable summer temperatures. Us Brits took this as an opportunity to play Volleyball! On the other side of the coin we were told not to forget our gloves in the winter. I forgot mine one morning, grabbed hold of my Jeep door and left half my skin behind.
Half a dozen of us had the chance to see a US concert where Marilyn Monroe was appearing. Much to the Americans disgust we were taken right down the front to sit on a tank and have a really good view. We also had British concert parties and used our higher aspect to where the ‘party was housed to oversee their shower area. This was a much better show.
We were taken on a R&R trip to Japan for a week. Hitching a lift on a DC3 Dakota with no seats. An uncomfortable ride. We visited several cities in Japan including Tokyo where we enjoyed the markets, temples and shrines, and of course the Imperial Palace. Invited to experience a Japanese Bungalow home we took off our shoes and walked through rooms on a matting type floor and Bamboo walls. The householders had a sunken toilet in the floor and slept on the floor on futon mattresses.
Back in camp we had our six monthly visit to the Laundry/bathhouse which was about fifteen miles away. The local roads were virtually nonexistent and surfaced with packed earth. The dust was a problem; so we were instructed to drive very slowly in order to avoid hitting the vehicle in front, which could suddenly appear, very close! The big laugh was that we arrived smothered in dust, had a super hot bath, put on our clean clothes, drove back to camp to arrive smothered in dust again.
The dust did not help to keep vehicles serviceable. We would get the Royal Engineers to come out and service or repair ours, whilst the Americans solution was to drive, or push their ailing transport to the top of a steep hill and tip them down a cliff.
A second trip to Japan was offered when I had six months to go in Korea. This time we travelled, one hundred and fifty of us in the hold of a gigantic four jet engine’d Galaxy, capable of transporting two battle tanks. We accelerated down the two mile long runway and eventually lifted off, much to our relief.
Just before returning to Blighty we were taken to view across the 38th parallel. The North Korean and Chinese troops were all exaggeratedly strutting about on the other side of No-Man’s-Land about 100 yards away. Every gun in their guard posts was pointed in our direction. That was in 1955, 61 years later the threat from the North is still there. We saw the severe battle damage in the shattered capitol of Seoul before travelling back to Pusan and the waiting troop ship.
Stopped on the way in Singapore where we saw the sites and the notorious Changi Prison, where so many WW1 British and allied POW’s were tortured, starved and often killed in the concentration camp.
We flew the rest of the way home to Aldershot, handed in our Army kit in exchange for a demob suit and most of the things to go with it, waved goodbye to the army barracks and boarded a train for home, at last.
My army stint was over….
In 1956, ten months later, whilst working at Kodak in Harrow, I received a call to report back to barracks. I was only barely into my four years of reserve service when Colonel Nasser, the Egyptian leader, decided to nationalise the Suez Canal. The US and Britain did not agree and it was determined the Brits would stop him. Nasser had already sunk several ships in Port Said in an effort to blockade the Canal access.
We flew into Nicosia, Cyprus where our transport was covered in barbed wire. EOKA terrorists were active over union with Greece. Every time the bus stopped we jumped out, rifles ready, to defend it against attack. After a very short stay in Episkopi we were driven early morning to the harbour and boarded a Royal Navy destroyer to take us to Port Said.
Seven or so miles from Port Said we were instructed to climb down cargo nets slung over the side of the lively destroyer to board waiting landing craft. It was an unpleasant experience loaded down with our heavy equipment. Once on board we were told to “Fix bayonets”. This command released a feeling of dread and foreboding as to what we may be encountering. Grinding up the beach, the ramp went down and we charged up the sandy shore. Zilch, nothing, not an Arab in sight. They had all moved twenty miles inland up the beach.
We billeted ourselves in a house and settled in. Off on a recce, still with no idea what was going to happen next we commandeered a 56 horsepower American truck with all the exhaust baffles knocked out, you could hear us coming for miles.
I drank some contaminated water and spent three days in hospital having to take two huge tablets with four pints of water a day. Not an easy task.
Although there were some incidents; such as a bullet hitting the ceiling in our billet, we had no serious happenings to our little band. The sea was lovely and warm but as the beach was mined we only had a short time for a swim when the mines were cleared just before we left. The British troops were only in Suez for seven weeks and we were then replaced by the United Nations newly formed UNEF peace keeping troops. They treated us like dirt.
A last act of defiance before we left was to park our noisy truck on a deserted beach with a hand grenade fixed in the engine compartment. A piece of string held in the safety pin in, this was attached to a wooden peg stuck in the sand. With a fierce swell as the tide went out the peg would be dislodged, the pin released, and Bang! Unfortunately we were not able to witness said bang, as we had to drive off to board our ship taking us home.
Spent Christmas in the Med on the cruise ship Canberra, snuggled down in the bottom of a dry swimming pool at the rear of the ship. After four days we reached Southampton. As we neared the Isle of Wight we were instructed to dump all our live ammunition over the side. There must be tons of the stuff lying in the sand if this happened every time.
On disembarking , me with my typewriter, (why did I need to hang onto that?) and an almost full bottle of brandy, we laid out all our kit on the floor for a quick inspection. No problems, OK lads, away you go.
This time it was for keeps!