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This is the Army Mr. Ted

Kenny Clare and Dennis Sullivan, my two closest friends, came to see me off from Victoria Station where I was en route to Canterbury heading for the BUFFS Barracks for six weeks basic training. National Service had zapped me barely two weeks after my eighteenth birthday. Kenny and Dennis are trying hard not to snigger at my haircut. Rather than let the army butcher have a go, I had a crew cut at my local hairdressers. We chaps were rather proud of our hair in the forties; mine was long and blonde-ish, able to be pulled down under my chin. Today’s fashion veers towards no hair and is considered cool. Within months of waving goodbye, both of my sniggering mates would be called up in the RAF, Kenny to continue his drumming career while Dennis worked his way around various RAF establishments with the same aplomb he employed with his skill at ballroom dancing. Without any tuition he also showed natural ability at the keyboard. He would have excelled at either had he chose to. Kenny and I envied his ballroom skills; we were too shy to even attempt the light fantastique despite having, supposedly, in-built rhythm. Dance halls were feeding ground for boys seeking girls. Instead, we sat on long bus journeys counting bars in our head to see how close we got to each other. Apart from all-night poker games at Kenny’s small house in Richmond Road (Leytonstone) or gauging his mum’s staircase by playing sword fights with REAL swords. Our joint speciality and main love was jazz, in particular West Coast jazz. What we didn’t know about that subject could be inscribed on a pinhead – six times! My small suitcase contained two 78rpm records; Woody Herman’s Apple Honey and Stan Kenton’s Artistry In Rhythm, both presents from Kenny as my copies had worn so thin the track on the ‘B side’ could almost be heard. Woody Herman didn’t make Canterbury but Stan lasted out a thousand miles.

The BUFFS (3rd Regiment of foot) were the oldest infantry regiment dating back to 1572 and renown for their valour, hence; ‘Steady the Buffs’ Our quietly spoken drill sergeant assured us that despite looking like a bunch of poofs in six weeks we would not know ourselves. He was true to his word. We doubled everywhere, backwards and forwards to the parade ground, to the latrines at 6am and to the canteen with knife, fork and spoon clasped behind our back (fork prongs facing outwards should we stumble and accidentally stab ourselves). I wasn’t keen on becoming a ‘regiment of foot’ person. After carelessly leaving my bolt out of the rifle during an important parade, and an occasional forgetfulness ascertaining my right foot from my left together with a dismal record on the rifle range, there were some doubts as to my qualifications to become an infantryman. These doubts were added to when my slight stammer limited my ability to shout ‘Halt, who goes there?’ The quietly spoken drill sergeant pointed out (to the amusement of my platoon) that by the time I questioned the intruder, I would have a bayonet in my gullet. After basic training, I was confirmed to be non-infantry material and posted to the Royal Army Service Corps stronghold at Farnborough to take a course in shorthand writing. Followers of the perversities of military procedure will not be amazed to learn that, despite the twelve weeks course and achieving a modicum of success in both shorthand and typing, I was NEVER ever required to perform either task. On induction to the armed forces if you desperately want to be a cook, don’t expect to be a cook. The same goes for a mechanic or what-have-you. However don’t ask to be in the infantry – it doesn’t always work that way. Bull was a big factor at Farnborough. The army liked to keep the troops occupied by devising menial tasks. On one occasion the Duke of Edinburgh (I think it was he) was scheduled to pay us a visit. This gave the powers that be carte blanche to keep us all well occupied. Huge tins of paint were handed out. The grass had to be painted green. The tree trunks brown and, bizarrely, the piles of coal were to be painted white. On the day of the big visit, we lined the road in best bib and tucker standing stiffly to attention to see a fleet of staff cars whiz by at forty miles per hour. Whether the ‘Dook’ was in one of them nobody knew. Two hundred pairs of highly polished boots trudged back to their billets. The guard duties were arduous; it took an hour to get prepared ‘blanco-ing’ and polishing. The guard commanders could discover a minute flaw in your appearance at twenty paces incurring dreadful penalties.

Sitting on our beds awaiting the call one Saturday afternoon we were disturbed by a harrowed 2nd lieutenant bursting into our hut;’ Anyone here name Scott?’ Yes sir, here’ I replied.’ Got you down in your pay book as a drummer dance band – right?’ Right . . . sir’ Come with me Scott, you’re playing tonight in the Sergeant’s Mess’ I pointed out that it was impossible as I was on guard shortly. This was pooh poohed with a wave of the hand. We walked briskly to the camp hall.’ What’s your name Scott – first name?’ Ted, sir’ Well Ted’ he replied. ‘Our regular drummer is George Scott – any relation?’ No sir’ Unfortunately he’s had to go home on compassionate leave, could be quite a while it seems – the band is waiting to give you a bit of a rehearsal’ The band was an eighteen-piece, a bit different from George Sims (alto sax doubling violin) and the Blue Jays that I had been used to. They were proper musicians, many of them later to appear in top British bands. A super Premier kit awaited complete with three tom toms and three Zildjian cymbals. It was stuff beyond my wildest dreams and experience. Drum music stared at me, I could just about read but not sight read. Luckily they started off with American Patrol. Luckily also, I knew most of their book. You don’t get to listen to records until they wore thin without being able to ‘play’ them in your sleep. But, I was woefully out-classed. I lasted out several weeks playing various camp dances in the area. George Scott was due back shortly (probably to everyone’s relief). One of the trombone players worked in the postings office; ‘Hey Ted’ he asked one day; ‘How would you like a posting to London? They want a technical mechanist clerk at the RASC depot, White City; I jumped at it. Being on the Central Line I could get the underground direct to Leytonstone, and home. My task at White City was mainly paperwork, booking out spare parts for army vehicles, but more importantly, lighting the stove in the CO’s office before he turned up for work. This was the winter of 1947, the worst winter in memory. Oh how I tried to keep that fire going before he arrived. His glowering disappointment finally prompted the question; ‘What did you do in civvy street Scott?’ I was a drummer sir; He is perplexed; ‘What a door-to-door salesman?’ No sir, dance band’ Really?’ he exclaimed. Dance bands were not in his sphere of social life, but he is now beginning to comprehend how the stove lighting task is beyond my ken. Within three weeks, I am posted to Thetford, in Norfolk. This is an embarkation camp where life is made a little ‘unpleasant’ so that when you are eventually posted to some foreign clime you will be rather chuffed to leave. Shortly before I got to Thetford, two squaddies had hung themselves in the toilets.

Rumour had it that a shorthand writer was wanted by the military attaché in New York in the United Nations building. My imagination was further fired by the suggestion that military personnel were not allowed to cross the Atlantic in uniform. Civvy clothes would be provided. I wondered if they had a light grey, single-breasted suit with patch pockets? I further imagined visits to New York jazz clubs (and record stores).  My posting came after two weeks in a freezing cold environment with endless parades to either have your posting read out or much worse, your menial task for the rest of the dismal day. Cutting the grass in front of the Officer’s Mess with your eating irons was not high on the list of sensible things to be doing. Especially in a frosty November! 1918445 Private Scott . . . . . embark to the Middle East for further posting. Given twelve hours leave, I just had time to go home and say goodbye to mum. Dad was out doing a deal! After a convoluted train journey from Norwich to Liverpool via London we embarked on the SS Scythia - a troopship leftover from the war. She was a single stack ex-liner from the White Star Line. Having never been more than twenty miles from home I was strangely excited. My sulk at heading for the Middle East and not on a BOAC Constellation to New York lasted two days, on the third morning at sea on deck watching the coast of Portugal float by. Twinkling lights from houses on the mountainside could be seen, a different world indeed. Later we are in Gibraltar, then Malta, then Port Said, our final destination before SS Scythia steamed on to Singapore. The food on the ship is first class. The bread freshly made every day. For us squaddies, more accustomed to wartime rationing, it is the height of luxury. The Captain gave us lectures. Apparently, this ship was used to transport Russians back from prisoner of war camps to Murmansk. He recounted how when queuing for their food, they put the soup, the main course and the pudding all on one plate, mixed it up and consumed it with great relish. This and other tales left us eighteen-year-olds in awe. But not as much awe as we discovered in Port Said. On docking, there were little boys diving under the huge ship to recover coins thrown in. Ashore, little boys offered to introduce you to their sister. Other little boys were keen to clean your boots. A refusal incurred much bad language (in English) and a dollop of something awful on your boots, now in dire need of a clean. An open-air cinema was situated in the backyards of blocks of flats. Washing hanging from windows partially obscured the screen showing a film with four lots of sub-titles over it. Nobody listened to the sound track and several other little boys constantly buzzed around selling various wares in two or three languages. King Farouk’s image and the National Anthem at the end of the programme brought sudden silence everywhere. To attempt to exit during this was inadvisable, to say the least. After a week in Port Said, we are transported to Port Suez. On the train another little boy traverses the corridor selling bars of chocolate from a tray around his neck. He is barely ten and cheerfully doing good business when an Egyptian military policeman grabs him by the collar, opens the carriage door and chucks him out. We watch in horror as he picks himself up, retrieves his tray and what few piastres he has accumulated and casually wanders off towards endless sand dunes. Life is cheap here, I hope it has changed in sixty years, but I doubt it.

The transit camp at Port Suez is huge. There are rows and rows of tents interspersed with seemingly dozens of shops owned by the locals. Every third one is a ‘dhobi wallah’ offering a superb uniform clean and press service for a pittance. The vast camp is occupied by an assortment of regiments from Scots Guards to Welsh Fusiliers, all awaiting postings. The NAAFI at night is a dynamite keg waiting to be lit by copious quantities of alcohol. While on perimeter guard duty one night, there is a commotion in the NAAFI – we are all called to gather there. I am slow responding to this request. On arrival, it appears a rather large Irish gentleman had smashed a few tables over some other gentlemen’s heads and, on being requested by the Orderly Officer of the night to stop mucking about, he punches the said officer in the snout. Now, if you offend the Orderly Officer, whatever his rank, you have offended the ultimate Camp Commander – who was, I believe a Lt-Colonel. The gentleman in question, now overcome by quantities of guards, is stripped naked and chained to a bed in the guardhouse. I believe he got seven years. No time off for good behaviour but time added for bad. Life was cheap in the British Armed Forces. I hope it has changed in sixty years! I remember two Scottish chaps in our tent politely helping themselves to our cigarette rations in almost incomprehensible Glaswegian. Once (after a heavy night in the NAAFI) they decided on a lay-in. A sergeant inspecting the tents at 6.30am for malingerers found them a’slumber. He woke them by prodding the inert bodies with his stick and they showed their joint annoyance by biffing him, laying him out cold. They got three years – sergeants obviously not being as offended as Orderly Officers.

My group of mates was dwindling as postings came through for Mombassa, Aden and all points east. Finally, the last fifteen of us are told to report to the ferry to take us across the canal where we were to board another train headed for Palestine. The train takes two days to reach our destination because some brave chappie has to walk ahead for lengthy periods with a land mine detector. The train windows are sealed although we see endless miles of orange groves through the cracks. Our iron rations and lack of amenities are causing some frustration. Most of the talk is about girls left behind. In point of fact, very few had ‘girls left behind’ - boasting of female conquests was par for the course. I only ever had one (rather part-time) ‘girl left behind’ a blonde stunner named Barbara Rogers from Leyton. She promised to write to me but never did.

Haifa. It’s December 1947; British troops are leaving in droves. As Jewish refugees flood in, Palestinian homes are being confiscated and there is a general air of discontent. We brave fifteen are ensconced in a camp on Mount Sinai. The camp used to hold hundreds but they have vamoosed. We play cards and generally enhance our previous female conquests. However, boredom creeps in and one night we decide to pop down to town. The duty sergeant politely tells us that we had better chain our rifles to our wrists. He further pointed out that chopping one’s hand off by the local inhabitants to gain access to the weapon was not beyond the realms of possibility. We returned to our poker school.  After three weeks of inactivity, one sunny morning we are bundled into a K5 Austin 3-ton truck heading for Haifa docks. En route, the duty sergeant advised; ‘Keep your heads down chaps - a lot of stray bullets about. ‘We board a small steamer (about 5000 tons) with a hundred or so Cypriot troops. Our destination is Cyprus. En route, the weather is atrocious with massive thunderstorms, sheet lightning and heaving seas.

Life below decks is not a runner what with the smell and inert Cypriot soldiers. Up top, several of our chaps and all the Cypriots are dreadfully ill, some may have even got washed overboard – who knows? Next morning, drained of all life on the sick infested deck, we awake to sunshine and calmness with the coast of Cyprus looming up. Sunshine and calmness combined with peace and tranquility sums up my twenty months of army life in Cyprus. On disembarking, fourteen of, what are now, my closest pals, are taken to 695 Company outside the port of Famagusta in northern Cyprus. I am decreed to join 471 Company in Nicosia. Life is cruel it appears. Not for me however, 471 Company was a doddle posting whilst 695 Company was Aldershot and Farnborough combined in the blistering sun.471 Company, Nicosia, is a Royal Army Service Corps camp positioned in a small wood. Trucks from all over Cyprus come here for repairs. Most of the mechanics are Cypriot, or Turkish or even Armenian. There is very little dissent. That was to come years later. About twenty of us lived in a Nissen hut (on site) in some degree of comfort. It wasn’t Butlins to be sure but I had landed on my feet.

My musical ‘talents’ were later gleaned from my trusty pay book and I was recruited to play at various army venues in a small combo more suited to my drumming abilities. We got ten shillings a gig, apparently musician union rules! I had been promoted to corporal by this time – war substantiated no less. This meant that in the event of a war I could return to that rank. A pleasant prospect! The Commanding Officer of 471 Company, Captain ***** discovered that in Civvy street I had also looked after my father’s books. The café business in those days with rationing was a minefield of paperwork. The Captain enquired whether I could ‘look at’ his personal books. I did. He had several investments and I assisted with his tax returns. The beautifully spoken Captain, not much older than me, always called me ‘Mr. Ted’. Later, in life Keith Beckett, a television director on the Val Doonican series also called me ‘Mr. Ted’. My pleasant stay in Cyprus was interrupted once on a sad occasion. One of the guys in the hut was browsing through his friend’s locker looking for a girlie magazine where he discovered several hidden letters addressed to other hut guys. One was to me with a ten-shilling postal order that my dad sent now and then. The owner of that locker, another corporal, was charged with theft. Found guilty he was sentenced to two years in the glasshouse in Port Said. Another corporal and I had to escort him via boat, handcuffed all the way. On arrival at the detention centre (a frightening place) we were given a receipt for ‘one body’ and a very dejected miscreant was doubled away from the guardhouse with the gleaming, mirror-like polished floor to begin his sentence. I wish it hadn’t come to that but the balloon went up before most of us knew it.

I learnt to drive at that camp. On weekends, we would scoot around the trees in whatever transport we could find. I seriously crunched a Humber Super Snipe (top officer’s wheels) into a tree causing damage to the bonnet, bumper and a wing. Two Cypriot mechanics were rounded up and they repaired the damage before the Monday morning roll call. John Preston, one of our guys, was a motorcycle nut. He would speed between trees on a makeshift rally course with inches to spare at sixty miles per hour. He entered a motorbike contest for the all-Cyprus forces. To prepare for this, he kept the machine by his bed where it was molly-coddled to death. The night before the contest, he returned to the hut rather tipsy. Concerned whether it would start for the following day’s contest we were awoken at 2am by the terrifying roar of the bike as he started it up and revved like mad. Next day, after winning the contest, we joined him for another night on the tiles with the bike relegated to the shed. The Berlin airlift was happening around this time and we were all given another three months added to our two years National Service. Cyprus is only a hundred miles or so from Russian soil and some top brass hat must have considered an invasion a possibility. This hypothesis never touched the busy cafes and bars of delightful Metexes Square in Nicosia. Life went on as usual and peace reigned. Eventually, demob loomed up. A flight to Tobruk in an ancient Dakota gave the chance to view from above lots of sunken ships in the harbour, still lying there awaiting salvage. A walk on the beach revealed a rusting German U Boat washed up. The periscope had long been purloined but entry into the dark monster was frighteningly inhibiting. Ten days later, we board the troopship, Empress of Australia (21,800 tons) for the journey home. As I lean over the side contemplating the thrill of seeing my folks and my sisters, a hand touches my shoulder; ‘Is that you Scottie?’ It’s Roy Fisher, the Davies Lane (Leytonstone Senior Boys School) prize bully. He is garbed in the uniform of the Military Police; rank of Sergeant. It figures. Apparently, he is going back to sign on for five years specialising in interrogation techniques. Now that he’ll be good at! Close contact with gentlemen of that ilk is not recommended and viewed with disfavour among one’s buddies. I am friendly, but distant and keep well out of his way before docking at Liverpool. I am given a demob suit, but choose to wear my khaki with Middle East flashes. The grey demob suit finished up in a bin on Liverpool station. On the tube I sit alongside rows of dismal-looking people, all in dire need of some sun. Mum and Dad greet me taking me to their latest venture, a transport café on the old Southend Road. Some months later I am peeling sack-loads of potatoes on my twenty-first birthday awaiting the rush of coach parties returning from reveling in Southend. Cyprus, beautiful Cyprus, the biblical Jewel of the Mediterranean, is a distant memory.

Life looks bleak. What the hell am I going to do?   

My First Equipment