National Service

National Service, 1955 – 1957

 

From 1955 to 1957, for two years, I served Queen and Country, and did my National Service. At the time, I thought it was an utter waste of time — two years taken out of my life for nothing. Now I am quite not quite so certain.  They were two very interesting years, in which I grew up, and when I went up to Oxford, I was far more mature and got far more out of it than I would have done otherwise. And actually, I quite enjoyed myself.

In the army – a poor print which has faded differentially. I know it was in the army because I am wearing an army shirt. I always disliked the army uniform because it was so rough, and I swore that when I came out of the army I would never wear rough clothing again. This is why, ever since, I have never worn jeans. Though clearly it was not in basic training, because my hair is quite long.

I suppose I had always regarded it as being inevitable that after Rugby, I would do my National Service before going up to Oxford.  But then in my last year Peter Falk, my housemaster called several of us in to talk about National Service. He advised us that it was  best to do it immediately after Rugby. Coming after Rugby, he said, national service would not seem too bad and after it was over we would have out three or four years at university which would be the free-est time that we would ever spend in our lives. If we did University first, and National service afterwards, it would be a dreadful wrench. I had already made my choice, but it was good to have my choice confirmed in this way.

But there was to be a short gap between the end of term and being called up, so I decided to spend it going to a work camp in Germany. In our last year at Rugby, it had been decided that we were all be coming too specialised and that we should therefore spend four periods a week doing something else, and I, like many of my colleagues, chose to learn German. Having got a year of German under my belt, I thought it would be a good idea to take a brief holiday in Germany, trying out my German. My friend Nicholas Allen, who had also been learning German, also thought this was a good idea,  so we decided to go out to Germany together and we found a work camp right in the south east corner of Germany in the Fichtelgebirge, or pine forests, near Selb, right on the border with Czechoslovakia.

Selb was a town I had not heard of before and indeed I have not heard of since, but it was famous for its porcelain, and the firm of Rosenthal. We got out there without difficulty after a long train journey, and we had quite a jolly fortnight in the camp. I think it was a somewhat basic camp, in wooden huts, and we did some sort of work during the day in the forests which were sort of romantically gloomy.

I have few recollections of the camp. It was an international camp, and I remember that there were some French students there who knew much more German than I did, but I soon realised that even though they knew more German, my German accent was much better than theirs, and I learned the eternal verity that English and German are much closer neighbours than German and French. But I also remember one evening, we were playing some sort of competition and for a forfeit I had to drink a pint of beer which did not seem a very good idea, so I spent my time blowing the froth at Nick, and he blew his froth at me, until the Germans took pity on us and drank the beer for us.

Several of the Germans had brought guitars with them, and in the evenings they would sing German folksongs. It was the first time I had encountered the great wealth of German folk song, often merging into Schubert. We were challenged to sing English folk songs, but  of course we couldn’t — we just don’t have this folk song tradition in England; but my memory of the German folk songs remains.

There were also some girls on the camp. I think they were about the first girls I ever saw,  and I was entranced by their long skirts – were they called dirndls? It was the age of the New Wave,  and long, or at least medium length skirts were suddenly in the fashion. When the time came to go home,  some of the Germans nobly volunteered to take us to their homes so we could see what a German home looked like. I think I stayed the first night with one of the males, but what I remember is going along with a German girl called Rosemarie – Rosemarie Severus. She lived in Weinheim, just south of Heidelberg. I think her mother was rather appalled by the idea of having a couple of strange Englishman to stay the night since she only had a very small flat, but we very happily slept on the floor. But it was in a marvellous position just rising above the plains of the Rhine looking westward over the plains covered with flowers and trees and I have never forgotten it.

Subsequently I met up with Rosemary several times. I can’t remember the details: I am sure we must have left an invitation to visit us in England, and I think she must have turned up when I was at Oxford. I can’t remember the details, but I think my Mother did not approve of her – she was too sexy, and too much interested in poetry and the Arts.  But I know that I still have a book of German poetry with her annotations in the margins throughout. I remember in particular one verse which went:

Ich bin dein
Und du bist mein
Des solt du bewiss sein.
Du bist beschlossen in meinem herzen
Verloren ist das schlusselein
Du must immer darin sein!

Very romantic!

Strangely enough we met up again 30 years later. One day she just turned up at a Nassington Road with her husband — a second husband called Udo. I think she had one or two children by an earlier marriage but by this time she and Udo were living in America in Michigan in Midland where Udo  was a scientist, specialising in the green material that insulates computer boards and into which the chips are set. Apparently this is a huge industry all of its own and it has concentrated in this little town of Midland in the north of Michigan near the border of Canada. Indeed if I remember rightly we even persuaded her to have Alexander over there for a week’s holiday which was very noble of her. I know that she has a daughter living quite near us in West Hampstead but somehow she had never come to visit us again. We should invite her!

I arrived back in England to find there had been chaos over my call up to the army. I had arranged a date before I left, but then they brought it forward,  and my parents had to explain to them that I was out of the country, and reluctantly they postponed my call-up to the original date. If I remember rightly, I eventually joined the army on 1 September, 1955.

 I join the Devonshires

In armyI was called up to the Devonshire Regiment, otherwise known as the Bloody Eleventh, a title won at the battle of Salamanca in 1812. I must confess I did not really fit in. The barracks were situated in Exeter in the Topsham barracks in Topsham road, a low built redbrick establishment if I remember correctly. My parents dropped me there by car and there followed the most traumatic nine weeks of my life. When one was called up, the first 10 weeks were spent in basic training —  training you how to march and shoot a rifle, and be  to be ready to be dispatched to the main regiment which was I think in Germany. I never completed my basic training — indeed I never did more than three weeks of it,  for after three weeks, if one was not good enough, one was back squadded to start all over again.  I was back squadded three times.

I already knew that I was no soldier, for I had been learnt that much in the Corps at Rugby. The trouble is I can’t march — I can’t dance either which is a more serious matter, but  somehow I have two left feet and if you put me in a squad of soldiers, however hard I try, I am always the odd man out.  This was made worse by bad health. When I had been in Germany in the forest I had been bitten by some horse flies which gave me scars on my legs which I still possess. I thought I was cured, but once I was in the Army, and having to wear gaiters the whole time, I found that the gaiters rubbed and combined with the stress and strain of army life, I soon had some very nasty sores on my legs. I was then taken off to the nearest hospital which was in the barracks of the Royal Army Service Corps at Honiton. I went there several times so I got to know it quite well. It was always the same, they gave me penicillin injections mostly in my backside, and I recovered and was sent back to barracks to resume my training, get back squadded and start all over again

However I knew what I wanted to do. I had worked out from my time in the Corps at school that the best thing to do was to try and get on the Russian course which I had heard about. When I asked the regiment about this, they said it did not exist — lying bastards —but when I arrived I was given a form to fill up to send to my headmaster to recommend me for officers training. I knew I would certainly not make an officer — you were sent off to Eaton Hall where the basic training was if anything much worse than in the Devonshires, and I knew I would not survive it.

However believing that the headmaster at Rugby did not know me, I sent the form off to my housemaster, Peter Falk, with a covering letter saying please recommend me, not for an officer, but to go on the Russian course.  Almost immediately I had a charming letter back from the headmaster, Sir Arthur fforde, saying he certainly remembered me and had given a very strong recommendation that I should learn Russian. If I did not hear anything about this, I should write to him and he would do something about it. This was I suppose the only time in my life that I have pulled strings,  but by God, it was worth it!

At first, I heard nothing and I began to despair and wondered whether I should write back to Sir Arthur fforde. But then suddenly, in the middle of November I was summoned and told I was being transferred to the Russian course in Bodmin. They admitted they did not know where the order had come from, and implied I was lucky, and so I was. I was put on a train and a couple of hours later I arrived in Bodmin, and bliss!

 Bodmin and the JSSL

Bodmin is a rather lost town in the middle of Cornwall, as it is not on the main railway line. The main London to Penzance Great Western Railway line had a station at Bodmin Road and from there a little side train puffed the couple of miles from Bodmin Road to Bodmin Town. Our camp was beside that railway line. Facing the town were the rather imposing barracks of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, a proper infantry Regiment, though they were light infantry, which meant that they marched twice as fast as ordinary infantry.

The rather imposing entrance to the DCLI barracks – our camp was a rather scruffy affair, tucked away behind it.
(Wikipedia)

They had a grand front to their barracks, but behind their barracks was a sort of ancillary camp.  I think it must have been rushed up during the war, but now it had been given over to the Joint Services School for Linguists. Last time I went back there, it had become a rather dreary and run-down commercial estate — I think the Light Infantry had gone too. But for me it was bliss.

When we first arrived we had the worst accommodation at the far end of the camp in a scattering of wooden huts warmed only by a cast-iron stove at the centre.  Still, they were miles from anywhere and we felt very free there. One of the first things we learned as soon as we arrived was to send for our civvies, that is our civilian clothes. In the Devonshire Regiment you weren’t allowed to wear civvies for the first six months of your service but at Bodmin you only wore army clothes for the time one was actually working,  and then yu immediately changed into one’s civvies. I remember that at Christmas we were given quite a generous break — I think 10 days or so — the teachers demanded it so we had a break too. I remember going back by train to my parents’ farm near Honiton, and as I passed through Exeter, a gleaming figure appeared in the doorway of the carriage; it was one of the people from my training course who recognised me. He had just ‘passed out’ at the end of his basic training that very morning, and was off on a 48-hour pass. He saw me and said Good God, whatever are you doing in civvies? Are you deserting? Oh no, I said, this is how we dress in the Russian course. And I felt very pleased with myself for having escaped from the Devonshire regiment.

After we had been there a month or so, one of the previous intakes moved out — we were intake 24 — but this meant that better accommodation was available for us and we were ordered rather brusquely to move to new accommodation. I remember feeling rather annoyed about this at the time because the order was given so brusquely, and on a Saturday morning too, when the time should be our own. But it was much better accommodation in what was called a spider that is a series of six or 8 huts all linked by corridor was which also led to the dining room. They were also centrally heated so we could go from our barracks to the dining hall all under cover. Once we settled in,  it was really rather nice. But I learned how easy it is top be angry about change, even when it is to one’s advantage.

Our training was very simple. Our day was divided up between ‘groups’ and ‘grammar’. Groups were small groups of about 10 or a dozen of us, and we were taught by a genuine Russian, many of them aristocrats who spoke with a distinctly aristocratic St Petersburg accent. Then at the end of the period, three groups were put together to learn grammar in a class of 30 or more, instructed by an English instructor who understood the finer points of grammar. I remember we learned from a very elementary childrens’ book which began off: “John and Mary live in a small house not far from London” — which I can recite in Russian, even now. It was really rather a superior form of language tuition which I think we recognised even at the time.

After 10 weeks or so we again had the big test, as a result of which those in the top 10% were sent off to Cambridge for the rest of their two years for an intensive course when they ended up as being interpreters, and expected to speak Russian fluently. The rest of us had a nine-month course at Bodmin and later at Crail and we ended up as translators, able to translate from Russian with the help of a dictionary. At the end of the course we all put in for an A level, I think for the Cambridge local board, which was reputed to be any easy board, and we all ended up with an A level in Russian.  For this we had to do some literature and I seem to remember that we studied Pushkin’s Queen of Spades and I also learned some Russian history from Bernard Pares’ classic History of Russia.

I had a good time at Bodmin, though looking back on it, I was very unadventurous. We had our weekends to ourselves, and many of us would go on the Saturday on the train to Plymouth which was the nearest big town. However Plymouth was just across the border in Devon and we were not meant to go outside the county without permission. Of course this was a rule more honoured in the breach than the observance, and I think it was virtually accepted that we could go to Plymouth. But I was a goody-goody and never went to Plymouth in all my time there. I explored Bodmin and St Petroc’s church – 25% Methodist, 25% Roman Catholic, and 50% pagan — and I think I managed to get up to Bodmin Moor and see some of the stone circles, but I can’t remember how.  I remember I used to go down to the local grocers and by a packet of digestive biscuits, and the middle-aged couple who kept the grocery took pity on me and invited me to their home on a Sunday for tea and I remember being rather embarrassed to admit that I had been a boarder at a public school and was not homesick at all, being well used to being away from home. It was just that I was rather shy.

Crail

However one day about halfway through our course — I can’t quite remember when — I think it must be in March or April 1956, the order suddenly came through that we were being transferred from Bodmin up to Crail in Scotland, near St Andrews. The story went that the authorities were worried that the Russians had discovered the existence of the school and therefore decided to move us to the other end of the country to confuse the Russians. However the day we arrived, the copies of Pravda and Izvestia that were sent to the school mysteriously arrived at our new home in Crail. We all went up by train — I think there must have been several special trains, and eventually after a long, long journey we arrive at St Andrews, —  or was it at Anstruther, the nearest railway station.

The camp at Crail was a mile or more outside the little village of Crail, right on the tip of the St Andrews peninsula. I think it had originally been an RAF camp — I think there were RAF personnel on the gate, but when I revisited it, it had become a sheep farm and our barracks had been turned into sheep pens or pig sties. But it was very bleak and quite a long walk into Crail, which was not much of a village either. However it was about 10 miles from St Andrews, and I got into the habit of going every weekend into St Andrews — it was my first experience really of going out by myself.

I don’t remember the theatre being quite as scruffy as this – the photo is taken from the Byre theatre web site. The dressing room was up the ladder. I think they must have had a posh entrance from the street.

I seem to remember going regularly to the theatre there. It was a very small theatre about eight or was it 10 seats wide and not many more than 10 rows deep —  I think there were 74 seats in all. It was known as the Byre theatre because it was in an old cowshed.

However I do remember seeing plays just like this – it was wonderful!

If you sat in the front row you could almost put your feet up on the stage. But it was a real repertory Theatre and I got my first experience of going to a repertory theatre there.

Those was also a nice little University at St Andrews. I think it was famous at the time for being the only university where women outnumbered men. The women had to wear a red gown when they went out in the town which made them very conspicuous. It was about this time that I first began to notice women and I was very scared of them, so every time I saw a red cloaked figure coming towards me, I would cross over to the other side of the road so that I would not need to walk past this dreadful apparition. I suppose it would be half a dozen years or more before I really conquered this fear.

Going home on leave was also a great adventure in that it meant going all the way from Anstruther right through to Devon. We got very generous holidays at the school and I think I must have made this journey more ran once. I remember one particular occasion when I had to change trains at Crewe in the middle of the night. It was quite a journey. First from Crail over the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh.  Then get a train from Edinburgh to Carstairs which was the junction on to the West Coast line. Then down to Crewe, then there were two different routes from Crewe to Bristol, though I can’t remember how he went from Bristol to Devon — I think it must have been via Templecombe.

One dramatic night I had to spend two hours between two o’clock and four o’clock on Crewe station. This is the busiest time of the 24 hours for Crewe, because all the trains from London would meet up with the trains coming down from Glasgow,  as they had to change engines or at least take on coal and water. I remember running up and down the station to see train after train taking off. In those days, trains were still very long, most of them the full 16 carriages that was the maximum, and for the main expresses the minimum too, and it was quite an effort for a single locomotive take off with a 16 coach train, and one would see the great Pacifics, and watch them slowly getting their huge train under way often slipping in the process, but nevertheless gradually moving the sleeping cars on their way. It was very dramatic.

Friends

I made some very good friends in the Army — indeed I think they were the nicest people I have ever met in my life. The point was that they were all very intelligent — you had to get to be intelligent to get on the course at the same time all the bastards had been weeded out and sent to become officers. There were two criteria are getting on the course first one had to be either going to university or having been to university and secondly you had to have failed to have become an officer so there is absolutely no officer material on the course, so all the unpleasant characters were eliminated. There were four of us who went on to become archaeologists. Besides me there was Jeffrey May, who I got to know very well because he went on to New College with me and subsequently joined me as an editor on Current Archaeology.

Then there was Ben Whitwell of the Staffordshire Regiment who went on to become the county archaeologist of  I think Humberside. And finally there was Brian Dobson. Brian was rather older than the rest of us (born 1931) because not only had he done his university degree but he had gone on to do his doctorate as well on the Roman Primipilarius, that is the Roman sergeant major. We didn’t know whether he should be called Pte Dr Dobson, or Dr Pte Dobson. He went on to have a distinguished career in the extramural department at Durham and to become an authority on Hadrian’s Wall and all matters military.

I should also mention Geoffrey Rickman whom I knew only briefly as he went on to Cambridge to become a an interpreter. He wrote a doctoral thesis on Roman granaries and subsequently had a distinguished career as professor of Roman History at St Andrew’s and also chairman of the Council of the British School at Rome.

However my two best friends were Tony Hallgarten and Robin Downie. Tony Hallgarten came from a Jewish family. His father had been a distinguished lawyer who fled Germany in 1938 and Tony was brought up in England.  When we went to Germany, I wondered why he did not speak German, and he said that although his parents only spoke schoolboy English when they arrived in England, he never once heard them throughout the war speak German to each other; they always spoke English. His parents then became distinguished wine importers  specialising in importing Mosels and Hocks into England.  Tony went on to read law and ended up as a judge. He lives around here and I rather regret that I have lost contact with him.

Robin Downie was slightly older,  having already done his undergraduate course at Glasgow. I met him again at Oxford where he came to do a D. Phil and he then went on to become Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow — the position once held by Adam Smith.  But his wife was interested in archaeology and they subscribed to the magazine for a long time. I once went to stay with them in Glasgow when they were living in professorial rooms on the quadrangle of the main university which they said was very daunting as you lived under the eye of all your fellow professors.

To Maresfield

Eventually in around August 1956, our course came to an end. We all took A level and passed and we also got some sort of certificate from the Army. And then they did know not know what to do with us, so they dumped us on the Intelligence Corps headquarters at Maresfield near Uckfield in Sussex. Up to this time, we had all remained nominally in our original regiments, so I had been wearing the badge of the Devonshire Regiment and there was always a threat that if we misbehaved or failed to pass our exams, we would be RTU’d, that is Returned To Unit, and that would have been a very fearful punishment indeed, though I don’t think anyone was in practice ever RTU’d. But having arrived at Maresfield we removed the Devonshire badgers and replaced them by the Intelligence Corps badge in a dark green,  which in its way was quite snobbish. It has always been nice to be able to go around and say mysteriously “I was in intelligence”.

We were in Maresfield for eight months.  In retrospect I think it was one of the happier periods of my life. Maresfield was a small village — it was next door to Piltdown where Piltdown man had been discovered, though I never realised this at the time. But it was a couple of miles – a good half-hour or three-quarter hour walk into Uckfield, which was one of those super very pleasant Sussex towns.

Our work here was nominal – there wasn’t really anything for us to do, so we were set to work reading Russian provincial newspapers, scanning them for any interesting titbits about anything military. We never found anything, but I think we knew it was quite a nominal task, and it did keep us reading Russian.

But this was the time of my life when I became a real culture vulture. Every week I would get the local newspaper and scan it for details of what was shown at which cinemas where. The big attraction was Brighton which was the end of the railway line from Uckfield, though Eastbourne was not much further on,  and there was Lewes just inland or of course if one went north there was Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells though they were a little more difficult to get to. I remember Crowborough as well as having a good cinema, and I visited them all often on both Saturday and Sunday. My biggest piece of culture vulturism was one Saturday when I went down to Brighton and went along to the arts cinema that was halfway between Brighton and Hove and there I saw first a film of Tosca (though I never really liked Puccini) then I saw the classic film of The Importance of Being Ernest, then a short break for an egg and chips supper and then to the theatre were I think again I saw an opera. I returned home by train to Uckfield then the long walk to Maresfield and felt that this was the life,  I was really being cultured.

Though actually my brow was lowered somewhat during my stay at Maresfield. This was when I learnt to appreciate Rogers and Hammerstein. One of my friends, I can’t remember his name but he went on up to New College with me, said that if I liked Gilbert and Sullivan I might also like Rodgers and Hammerstein and I should go and see Carousel, which had just come out and was on at Crowborough. Somewhat reluctantly I took his advice, got on the bus and made my way to Crowborough one Saturday afternoon. I had missed the opening half hour of the film and arrived just as they were doing their aria “If I loved you, time and again I would try to say, All I want you to be”. I was immediately smitten as it seemed to me to be very close to the Verdi aria in La Forza del Destino,  and being a musical snob, that became a very good reason for liking Carousel. I listened to the remaining performance entranced, and then stayed on and went through the whole film a second time,  really enjoying it. Ever since I have been quite an enthusiast for Rodgers and Hammerstein and indeed for the American musical generally. I remember seeing a performance of Oklahoma in the Theatre Royal at Brighton which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I think one of the reasons why I so enjoyed this time was that I had no other activities to distract me. At Oxford and subsequently when studying accountancy, there was always the nagging feeling that rather than go to the cinema, one should be at one’s books —though half a dozen years later, there were also girlfriends to distract one with the feeling that one should be taking them out.  But at this time,  girlfriends had not yet intruded into my life, so I could concentrate on culture.

I even joined the chorus of the Lewes Amateur Operatic Society in performing The Yeoman of the Guard. I think there was some young enthusiastic member of the Army Education Corps who thought we should be cultured, and he had been approached by the Operatic Society who were short of members of the chorus. I was intrigued and joined up indeed I think I even got some of my classes to attend them practices and went wrong in the final week and sang onstage every night the only time I think I have ever been on stage. I remember that the president of the Society was John Christie, the owner of the Glyndebourne Opera who confessed he had never been to a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan,  which I thought rather appalling that someone so much a part of the British operatic scene should never have been to a performance of G and S.

To Germany

By the time 1957 arrived, I think we had all rather expected that we would remain at Maresfield for the rest of our National Service, until we were demobbed in the autumn. However suddenly in the spring — it must have been around April — we were told we were to be moved to Germany,  where I spent the last four or five months of my service. In October and November 1956 the Hungarians revolted, and were put down with great brutality by the Russian army. This meant that the British listening operation, listening in to the Russian army, was overwhelmed, and they sent back an urgent message to send all available Russian linguists to Germany. Eventually 6 months later, the message reached Maresfield, and we were sent out to Germany, five months after the rebellion had been suppressed. We arrived to find we were superfluous –  but always ready to explore another country.

Our camp was near Mönchengladbach, right on the Dutch border. There was a detachment in Berlin listening to the shortwave radio direct, but the theory was that radio waves were bounced up into the ether and then down again and could be heard 200 miles back and our job was to do the listening. We couldn’t go much further back as we were right on the border:  if you went out of the camp and turn right, in a couple of hundred yards you came to the border. Of course we all had our passports, so we frequently crossed over. I know the camp was near to Wassenberg, and not far from the RAF station at Wildenrath, and I have been looking on Google earth and I think it must now be a golf course, the Rothenbach golf course which seems to be in exactly the right position. Architecturally it was interesting because although it had been built for the British Army, it was built in German style as large hallhouses rather than the much smaller huts joined in a spider as was the British architectural style.

Our work was easy,  listening into the Russian military radio. For this purpose we were trained in Russian military language. The theory is that one needs two thousand words as a basis in any language and then 100 words per subject, so we were set to learn 100 army words, 100 navy words, 100 airforce words, and 100 swear words, which were essential if one was to understand Russian military language. Of particular use was the Russian verb yevatch, which is used extensively by the Russian soldier, and providing one understands this in all its various forms, one can understand at least 25% of the average Russian soldiers language.

Our main job was to listen into their tanks,  and try to follow their conversations. But they were always trying to confuse us by changing wavelengths, so it was particularly important to follow these change of wavelengths, and to change with them. If there was anything really interesting, you had to record it for the high-level operations in Cheltenham. I was told that these were manned to a considerable extent by highborn Russian ladies who would not understand Russians swear words so whenever they occurred, you were meant to replace them with stars. However I suspect that even high-born Russian ladies would have known the meaning of this particular verb.

Those who were already at the camp through all the excitement of the November invasion had already gained considerable facility in listening-in, and I must confess that our lot never really got much facility in listening into the Russian radio. However we managed to get some superior equipment as the Americans were upgrading and dumping all the old equipment which we managed to snaffle, which was much better than our equipment. Nevertheless we were told that our linguistic skills were far better than those of the Americans.

Like many of the others, as soon as I arrived, I bought myself a bicycle. This was put to good use on cycling over into Holland to Roermond, which was the nearest town. The advantage there was that we could go to the cinema and hear films in English dubbed with Dutch subtitles. If you went to a film in Germany they were always dubbed into German – which gave us a good opportunity to polish up our German. I remember seeing two films in particular,  one was a film of Brigitte Bardot called Immer lecheld die Frau — which in English became And God Created Woman with which I was slightly disappointed, as it was not as shocking as I had hoped it would be. The other film was Die Oberer zehn Tausand – The Upper 10,000,  which was in fact High Society, with Bing Crosby swinging in German.

If we were feeling particularly adventurous, we could go on through Roermond and in only 10 miles come to Belgium and practice our French.  But we got into the habit of having three currencies in our pockets, the BAFS, the British Army Forces vouchers for use in the NAAFI; Deutschmarks to use in Germany,  and guilders for use in Holland.  Since we were all linguists we prided ourselves on speaking three languages, English among ourselves, Russian at work, and German are outside the camp. We soon acquired a bastard lingo where Düsseldorf became Wogglesdorf —  one appreciated how easily languages can transmute if you are living on a linguistic border.

We did quite a lot of travelling too. I remember that if one went over to Holland wearing one’s uniform one could travel halfprice on the railway. Many of us went up to Amsterdam very cheaply in this way. I also traveled quite extensively in Germany though I can’t remember any particular details.  I remember there was a boy called Richie who was the champion hitchhiker who seemed to go hitchhiking all over Germany right down to Frankfurt — all in a weekend.

Eventually the time came to an end. I think our time in Germany went quickly —  no sooner had we arrived and explored the camp and the countryside than it was in July and demob was in sight.  I think the last month, August, went slowly. Every week there were people leaving, getting demobbed, and we were vaguely aware that our summer holidays were slipping away and we would rather be at home to enjoy them. But eventually the day came, and I think we were quite a large batch to be demobbed. I remember it quite well, as it was all rather a an anti-climax . I rather thought that there would be some final parade; we would be lined up, and the commanding officer would make short speech saying,  Well, jolly good show chaps, you’ve done your national service, thank you for serving Queen and country, and best of luck out in civilian life. Or something like that.

But it wasn’t like that at all. We packed up our belongings in the long narrow sausage shaped kitbags, and some lorries came and we were taken to the railway station, where eventually a troop train came in with lots of other people being demobbed.  We were taken to the Hook of Holland and it was here that I lost touch with all my friends from the camp. It was an overnight ferry and we got on and somehow found some sort of bunks: I think we all slept in our uniforms. We arrived at Harwich, shambled along to the troop train which took us to Liverpool Street

And that was it. We  wandered out of the station, free at last – though still in uniform.  I made my way across to Waterloo to get the train to Axminster and there I went along to the toilets and finally changed into civilian clothes. It was here, in the toilets at Waterloo station that my National Service finally came to an end.  I put my baggage in the left luggage office and went across to the British Museum and I remember sitting there in the King’s library just simply drinking it all in. Free at last! My two years were not exactly hell – they had in fact been rather pleasant, but it’s not nice being in the army and not a free man.  But now I had the Oxford ahead of me , which would surely be the best four years of my like.  I got up and wandered round to see the Elgin marbles. Then back to Waterloo, and home. My National service was at an end.

 

On to Birmingham 

12th August 2012