How I joined 16 Coy RASC (AD)
I had been employed at a local factory for four years since leaving school, and although the job, processing Brazilian quartz for Mullard radio valves, was interesting enough, I realised that I could find myself at the same workbench for twenty or thirty years (employment in the 1950's was much more secure than it is now) without ever going anywhere, or seeing anything. The final trigger was ,oddly enough a neighbours son, whom I disliked intensely, I'm sure the feeling was mutual. His mother doted on him, and was always reporting his activities to my mother, how clever he had been at school, what a wonderful job he had in an insurance company (he was just an 'office boy') and how highly he was thought of, and so on and so forth in endless detail.
Finally, one day when I arrived home on my bicycle, soaked through from a rainstorm, tired and pretty fed up, my mother announced that Mrs Mitchell had just reported that her darling Neville had joined the Royal Air Force, having brilliantly passed the entrance exam and medical, "Of course Mrs Thorpe, Neville passed the medical with flying colours, him being so good at sports at school, and so fit." suggesting thereby that I was the weediest example of boyhood that she had ever seen. Presumably her darling Neville had decided on a career change, not having made managing director from office boy in one mighty bound.
My mother accepted these eulogies through gritted teeth, being unable to riposte with details of my heroic deeds. Eventually it was admitted that Neville didn't (yet) command a squadron of fighter aircraft, but had in fact joined the RAF Catering Branch. "Such a clever choice Mrs Thorpe, it gives him such scope for advancement." I wondered in what capacity. Worse was to come, within three months, she stopped my mother in the street. "Where do you think my Neville's been posted to Mrs Thorpe?" she asked, almost beside herself with excitement. My mother couldn't possibly guess. "Australia!" she trumpeted, presumably expecting my mother to adopt a posture of ardent admiration. "Very nice, how lucky" was all she could muster on the the spur of the moment, trying to sound pleased for Mrs Mitchell and darling Neville. Having dropped this last triumphant bombshell, Mrs Mitchell hurried away, no doubt to pass the news to the Southern Evening Echo for their next major news story.
Neville's first letter home, from somewhere called Woomera, was duly reported in detail and we could see that there would be no end to this. Robbing a bank or joining the Red Brigade would have been a rather negative reaction by me, but as least it would have been newsworthy, although I imagined that this would have rather upset the family, and would in any case have been brushed aside by Mrs Mitchell as she reported Neville's first promotion. What to do? It was a faint hope that Neville might succumb to the poisonous bite of some deadly Australian spider in his sleep. No, it had to be something that would equal or top Darling Neville's activities, and at the very least hand my mother some ammunition to stem the flood of motherly adoration that seemed to grow and expand of its own volition from Mrs Mitchell. I was of the age where in any case, boredom or dissatisfaction with my job wasn't really a sound reason to give up a job I actually enjoyed, with all the comforts of home. Nevertheless, I felt that at the age of eighteen, should I really be living at home with my parents? Especially as Neville had blazed such trails.
It never occurred to me that he might have joined up in desperation to escape the suffocating love of his mother. But the thought of suddenly finding myself on my own, in a rented room, cooking a meal on a small Belling in one corner and, crikey, washing and darning my own socks? Then, suddenly, like the proverbial lightbulb illuminating a dark corner of my floundering imagination, it became obvious. If that little creep Neville could join the Air Force, why couldn't I? Or even better, why not the Army? After all, my Dad had been in the RASC during the war, and he told nothing but tales of good times he had had with his mates, and was always making jokes about jankers, and what on earth was 'char and wads'? A whole new world was beginning to emerge through the clearing mists. My imagination leaped forward. I was reasonably intelligent, I already had a full driving licence, and was experienced, (a whole year on the road without actually hitting anything), and was small in stature and slightly built. Of course, I would be a tank driver! My Uncle Ted had been in the Royal Tank Regiment and he was a lot more heavily built than me, (I neglected the fact that Uncle Ted had been a Major, had never been in a tank, although he had helped to design the famous scissors bridging tank), so that was the obvious answer. So, shortly after, off I went to the Army Recruiting Office to become a tank driver.
Having taken the decision to join the Army, I duly presented myself at the local Army Recruiting Office and told the Colour Sergeant within that I wanted to join the Royal Tank Regiment as a tank driver. He looked up and down my puny physique and my spectacles and kindly advised me that, unfortunately, the Royal Tank Regiment weren't requiring tank drivers at the moment. He was too kind to add "especially weedy little squirts like you". He asked me what educational qualifications I had, and after I told him, he gave me some pamphlets to read through for the RADC, ACC, RAOC, RASC, R Sigs, REME etc. etc. and advised me that if I was really serious, to take them home, read them through carefully, decide what, if anything, I had an aptitude for, and then come back, and we would have a more detailed chat. He then politely ushered me out. As I stepped into the street, a huge boy with simian features pushed past me and entered, and from his appearance I imagined that he would simply announce that he wanted to kill people, and would be much more the type of recruit with whom the C/Sgt could talk on equal terms. I duly arrived home with my pamphlets, and had a good read through them. After some discussion, it was eventually decided that I would go for the RASC, and if successful, choose whether I wanted to be a driver or clerk.
After all the usual preliminaries, and swearing an oath of loyalty, I was told that instructions would be sent to me. In due course they dropped onto the front door mat. I was given directions to catch a train on a specific date, and de-train at Bentley, a small country station some miles south of Aldershot, with essential washing and shaving gear, a change of underwear etc etc. I was also instructed that there would be a public phone box outside the station, and I was given a number to ring and would then be collected by vehicle. It all seemed very conspiratorial, and in a way I was disappointed that I didn't have to look in a phone book, find a message, and repeat a secret codeword to the listener at the other end.
On the 27th May, 1963 I followed these instructions and stood and waited outside the station. All was still and quiet, with just the sound of a tractor in a nearby field. I felt like Cary Grant in "North by Northwest" and checked to make sure that there wasn't a crop duster flying around. But there was no airborne threat. I must admit to being surprised that I was to be collected at the station, instead of making the complete journey myself. "Crikey" I thought, "this really is the modern Army", and waited for a staff car to glide to a halt at the station. Therefore, when I saw the cab of an approaching Bedford three tonner over the hedge-tops, I took no notice, assuming that he was coming to collect a parcel or something at Bentley. The Bedford swept into the station forecourt, and it wasn't until a Lance Corporal jumped down from the cab and said "Your name Thorpe?" that I was jolted out of my reverie. On receiving an affirmative, he said, "'op in then."
Instead of Aldershot, we went as far as Bordon, where I was directed to a block and told to report to the admin NCO. And thus I suddenly ceased to be a private citizen with all the rights and privileges that such status conferred. I instead became a maggot, to be dealt with in an appropriate manner for the next few weeks until the Passing Out parade, whence I would emerge, if not exactly a military butterfly from the chrysalis, at least a trained soldier. One who could vaguely distinguish one end of an SLR from another and hopefully not kill myself or anyone else by accident. For the next two weeks, we attended mainly training films, showing the history of the RASC, what it had done, where it's soldiers had served, and the tribute to it by Field Marshal Montgomery, for its vital logistic role in World War Two. All this was part of the overall plan of inculcating pride in the Corps which we had joined.
We did rudimentary drill, which did no more than teach us how to line up in three ranks on the parade square, and were warned that the real drill would be taught us in Buller Barracks. Come the day, and two vehicles picked us up and we set off for our new home, unaware of what was about to hit us when we duly pulled up in front of the accommodation block. Hardly had the vehicle stopped than a voice that had more power behind it than speakers at a pop concert bellowed, "to shift our b--dy selves and fall in in three ranks." Fall seemed to be the operative word, as we almost fell out of the back of the vehicles in sheer terror, to be confronted by a short, tubby corporal, who turned out to be our Admin NCO. He looked at that moment as though he had never seen such a dishevelled, useless bunch of idiots in his life, which I suppose was correct. Over the next few days, were introduced to increasingly ferocious and terrifying creatures who turned out to be our drill Corporals, one of whom, Cpl Farncombe, because of his cadaverous features, was immediately nicknamed "The Screaming Skull". His tailored shirt and trousers had knife-edge creases, contrary to our crumpled appearance, and his boots were like black glass. It was into his gentle hands that we were to be consigned for our drill instruction.
Every morning we paraded and marched, turned, wheeled, marked time, doubled, slow-marched, up and down, up and down. Inevitably, one morning, confident that I had mastered everything and needn't concentrate so hard, I was daydreaming, misunderstood the word of command, and turned left at the halt instead of right, and to my horror, found myself facing the rest of the squad, most of whom were enjoying the schadenfreude moment and mercilessly grinning at me. I knew that Cpl Farncombe's eagle eye would have spotted me, even though I was cowering in the middle rank. You will be familiar with the phrase, "his bowels turned to water". Well mine did at that moment, hearing Cpl Farncombe's boots slowly approaching me from behind. I was prepared for an avalanche of screaming invective, but frighteningly, he uttered not a sound, until he put his lips to my ear, and whispered sweet nothings, such as what he would do to me if I ever ruined an otherwise well-executed squad turn. And so it went on, drill 'in the mornings, and weapons training in the afternoons, until the great day came and we all successfully passed out as a squad. We were then told that we would move on to Houndstone Camp near Yeovil, Somerset for trade training.
Before we left, our Admin NCO had one last laugh at our expense. The day before we were due to leave, he appeared in the barrack room and called us all together. "Now", he said sternly, "Listen up. You've probably heard that there are queers that have joined up, and you have to be on your guard against them. Well, there are two ways you can pick 'em out in the barrack room." We all listened in dead silence, so as not to miss a word of this vital information. "The first is" he went on, "when they get dressed in the morning, they will sit on the bed, and cross one leg over the other to put their socks on." He demonstrated the move as he said this. "What's the other way Corp?" someone asked. "Well" he said gravely "Well, it's if your boyfriend closes his eyes when you kiss him goodnight."
We had our Passing Out Parade on Tuesday 23 July 1963, and on 24th we spent clearing our lockers and packing our cases etc, to move to 6 Training Battalion RASC, Houndstone Camp, Yeovil on 25th for our trade training. The battalion was commanded by Colonel Grierson, but such lofty beings were hidden from our humble eyes. While undergoing basic training, great emphasis was placed on our being a homogeneous group. As soon as we arrived at Houndstone, there was a different atmosphere entirely. We were immediately classified as either "Shiny Arses" or "Thick Obliques", not openly, but unofficially references were made by the permanent staff in which these terms were used. I found this sad, because even amongst those mates from either pursuit, this false division was created, which subtly changed our relationship. Any thoughts I might have entertained when I enlisted about choosing which career I wanted to follow in the RASC went straight out of the window. A decision was made in the beginning that I was to be an 'S' oblique, and an 'S' oblique I would be.
One thing remaining common to us all, however, were guard duties, the dreaded 9 x 9 kit layout, and bumping the floor using that hideous orange polish that came in huge tins. I was assigned to "Buckle" platoon, the platoon sergeant being one Sgt Parsons, tallest man in the British Army, at over 7 feet. The first morning we paraded before separating to our training classes, I remember it was wet, and Sgt Parsons appeared wearing one of those belted gabardine Army raincoats. It was vast in extent, I had simply never seen such a colossal garment, it must have cost a great deal of money to produce, as with all his kit. Only five days after our arrival, I was selected for guard duty, but luckily was chosen as "stickman" so finished at 2359 hrs.
So we settled in to trade training proper, and July changed to August, as both groups learned their respective craft. The routine of lessons, guard duties, barrack inspections, 9 x 9s, kit layouts, boxing our blankets and sheets every morning and muster parades made the time pass, and by 9th August, the drivers, having successfully passed their driving tuition, were sent on nine days leave. Meanwhile our work continued until 17th September, when I sat my own trade tests, which, to my surprise, I passed.
Not long after, several of the clerks received their posting, two to Singapore and one to Odiham, but nothing for me. So September passed, and by 15th October, all the drivers left and flew out to Germany. Still no posting for me, and with the original group now scattered that had come together on 27th May, and gone through a total of four months training together which had already left indelible experiences imprinted on my memory, I became pretty depressed. Especially when our own smaller group also left to start their careers in various units, and left me in an echoing barrack room. One small mercy was that I no longer paraded in the mornings, or had kit inspections, or bull nights. But I was still on the duty guard roster. By day I was sent as a "gofer" in the Battalion Headquarters. And so the days of October passed, and I was getting pretty desperate for news of a posting, when on the 23rd, the Chief Clerk called me in to his office. "Your posting's come in this morning Thorpe". I waited, half in fear and half in excitement. He deliberately took his time reading through the posting order, then looked at me over the top of his glasses and said "You're posted to 16 AD at RAF Eastleigh". 16 AD? I thought. I didn't know the RAF were at Eastleigh airport. Still, I should be able to get home most weekends, living near Southampton as my parents did. He then dropped the bombshell. "RAF Eastleigh is near Nairobi, Kenya". And with this he passed my posting order to me with a rare smile.
I walked back to the barracks in a bit of a daze, trying to fathom what ‘AD’ was. I wasn't much wiser when I read that it stood for "Air Despatch". Even at the Headquarters, nobody could be certain of what the company actually did. On the way home that Friday night, I diverted to Bournemouth, where my Grandmother lived, and told her the news. Her knowledge of Africa was no greater than mine. She did know some Bishop in the 1940s, who now lived in Tanganyika and had once been a friend of the family. Her parting words to me were, "Be sure not to do anything to upset the natives, and peel all fruit!" Thus armed against the dangers of life on the Dark Continent, I was called to the QM Stores at Houndstone a few days later to be issued with my kit. Most of it was fairly recognisable, until Puttees Khaki Short and strange dark blue socks with no feet were added to the pile, all of which I carefully packed into my new Army suitcase. This practically filled it, so all my other civilian clothes and possessions that I wanted to take with me would have to go via MFO in my kitbag. My next task was to paint a black square on the kitbag, and stencil my number, rank, name and unit on it, and also on the base.
I was then granted embarkation leave and went home to await the arrival of a movement order. I was initially expected to move mid-December, but in the event the flight was cancelled on 12th, and no hint of another date. I was told on the 18th that I would be spending Christmas at home, which delighted my parents, although I had mixed feelings, as I wanted to get to my new unit and begin the job for which I had been trained. On 29th I returned to Houndstone and was told that my flight had been re-scheduled to Saturday 4th January. On that morning, I cleared out my locker and handed in my bedding. The duty truck picked me up at the guardroom and took me to Yeovil Junction station, where I caught the train to Waterloo.
On arrival at Waterloo, I caught a taxi to Victoria where I was to report to the Air Trooping desk. Here I was told that the flight had been cancelled because of fog, and that I, and others who were gathered there would spend the night at RAF Hendon. A coach duly arrived and we were all counted on board by an RAF Movements corporal. We duly waited, but the coach didn't move - until an RAF Movements sergeant got on board and counted us all again. He then compared notes with the corporal and they eventually agreed that they had both counted exactly the same number of passengers, which was a great relief to us all, and off we drove to Hendon, where we were all carefully counted off the coach once more and directed to our overnight accommodation. At least it was warm in the billet, and I had some supper and when straight to bed, feeling tired out.
The following morning after breakfast, we gathered together our belongings and then boarded yet another coach, where the same counting procedure was enacted. The coach then set off for Stansted. On arrival, we were all carefully counted once more, and on confirmation that nobody had absconded en route, we filed out across the tarmac to a waiting Bristol Britannia of BUA and were shown to our seats. The turbo props started one by one, and after the usual pre-flight procedures, we taxied out to the end of the runway, where after another pause the massive turbine engines started to whine as the pilot ran up the four Bristol Proteus engines, and after a few seconds released the brakes. This was my first ever flight, and I shall always remember the astonishing sensation of acceleration which went on and on and on until we left the runway and I saw the ground dropping away until we entered the cloud, suddenly emerging into brilliant sunlight.
Unfortunately the continuous cloud cover meant that I saw little apart from a brief glimpse of the English Channel far below before the cloud closed in again, and slowly the light faded as the sun set and we flew on, landing at Idris airport in Tripoli. Here we disembarked for an hour while "The Whispering Giant" as it was popularly known, was refuelled. After several hours, the sky was turning violet and then other shades as the sun rose. Eventually, the Britannia started its approach to Embakasi airport, signalled by the double "clunk" as the undercarriage was lowered, and as the aircraft lost height, so the ground rose up to meet it, and it appeared to be going increasingly fast as we descended the last hundred or so feet to touchdown. Eventually it taxied in to the apron in front of the terminal building, and as it came to a halt, we released out safety belts and stood up patiently waiting to disembark. As the door swung open, I shall never forget the warm air that swept into the aircraft, but most of all the smell of hot grasslands, the smell of Africa.
Having reclaimed my baggage, I went to the main arrivals hall, where I was met by a member of 16 AD Coy. He had no problem identifying me, a thin, worried looking, pasty-faced clerk with a brand new Army suitcase. We raced back to RAF Eastleigh, and I was shown the accommodation, and started to unpack. I was given a couple of days to sort out my kit and get the Dakotas sewn on my sleeves by the camp tailor. I duly presented myself on parade the next morning, and ‘Tom’ Collins, the CSM came slowly along the ranks until he got to me. He surveyed me clearly more in sorrow than in anger. My puttees looked like khaki bandages, wound around my ankles and ending wherever they stopped. My KDs, although vaguely pressed, hung on me in folds, and horror of horrors!, I hadn't polished the back plates on my shoulder titles, and not only that, but one of the split-pins attaching the shoulder titles actually ran from back to front, instead of front to back. The final straw was twisted bootlaces. If there was one thing that the CSM could not forgive, it was twisted bootlaces, “The sign of an untidy mind, Thorpe." He suggested that the man standing next to me should take me into some obscure corner and show me how to dress properly before daring to present myself on his working parade again. This was duly done, and I soon got the hang of it.
Thus started one of the most joyous periods of my life. I was shown the cultural life of Nairobi, Gino's Bar, The Delicious Bar, The New Happy Bar, etc., and I had one of the most marvellous years I can ever recall. The esprit de corps among the lads was tremendous, and even though I was only a clerk, they were all friendly and helpful to me as I gradually forgot all that I had been taught in training, and came to understand how things were in a working unit. I could write much more about the time I had with this merry crew of brigands, of when we moved to RAF Khormaksar, and of the times we had. They are the best bunch of blokes I ever served with. Inevitably, being a clerk, our paths diverged, and I was next posted to a movements company at Prince Maurice Barracks, Devizes. Here, I became interested in their work, became traffic operator, and spent the rest of my Army service in that capacity.
I would like to end with a request. When I arrived at 16 AD back in 1964, I was first accommodated in a room with four others, I'm sure that they will remember. Well, one of them (I will spare his embarrassment by not naming him) borrowed a pair of civvy socks from me to go into town, he'll know who he is. I just wanted to ask, if you've finished with '’em, can I have 'em back please?